The voices and stories of Pittsburghers bring the Battle of Homestead to life in Mark Clayton Southers’ The Homestead Strike of 1892. Dramatic historical interpretation by some of the region’s leading actors recreate vivid moments from one of American labor’s most significant management vs. workers incidents.
The world premiere was created as part of the Battle of Homestead Foundation’s 125th anniversary commemoration of the clash between unionist steelworkers and mill owner Andrew Carnegie and his plant manager Henry Clay Frick. The script introduces some of those who experienced the strike and its outcomes.
The historic Pump House in Homestead is the setting for the action that took place right there on the Monongahela River and its shores.
The characters include some of the workers at the Homestead Steel Works, employees of the Carnegie Steel Company. They were members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (forerunner to the United Steelworkers).
Southers himself was a steelwork for 18 years, so his perspective on the heat, dangers, and physical labor of steel making is first-hand.
“I really understood the sacrifices those workers and their neighbors made for the cause of labor and fair wages,” says Southers, who is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
The Foundation program describes the events, which were reported around the world: “The Battle of Homestead began July 6, 1892, when thousands of locked-out steelworkers and townspeople clashed with Pinkerton guards hired by Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie. Management fortified the steel mills and both sides fired guns and cannons at each other. The Pinkertons surrendered and townsfolk, including women and children, rained blows upon them and tore their clothes, then burned the barges they floated in on.”
Regional social activist Mel Packer portrays Andrew Carnegie who turns management of the mill over to Henry Clay Frick, personified by Michael Sullivan, in his absence. While Carnegie retreated to Scotland, Frick brought in the Pinkerton detectives to take back the mill. The hiring of scab labor further fueled the animosity and the National Guard was also summoned. Overall, seven workers and three of the some 300-400 Pinkerton agents were killed with some 60 people wounded.
The action is set in the mill, the nearby Bost Building (the union’s headquarters on Eighth Ave.), the riverfront and Frick and Carnegie conduct business, among other locations. The audience needs to accept that the Pump House is not a theater, but a historical site accommodating a story that runs a bit more than one hour.
Arrive assuming to take on the role of listener than to be entertained. For this show, expect to hear a story not a hi-tech production. This is a site-specific piece about the often unheard voices of those who lived and died during these significant events. Listen and learn more about the industrials whose names are one our museums and libraries. You’ll get to know some of the townspeople of Homestead, a place that deserves our attention and respect for its role in planting the roots of the labor movement and how the steelworkers and their descendants have survived all that’s happened here since.
The cast members are stellar storytellers in multiple roles. Their characters share a stark historic drama in the Pump House where raised platforms and a small audience area creates an intimate experience.
The scenes are connected by major story points read by narrator Paul Guggenheimer. The actor and broadcaster provides a contemporary viewpoint while also interacting with the historical action. He’s internationally anachronistic but it’s a way into another time and the place in which the audience sits and once shows up as a reporter questioning Frick.
As Frick takes over, the narrator says: “They called it Fort Frick. After all, he was the one behind it. While Carnegie shot quail in the Scottish Highlands, Frick had his sights set on the working man right here in Homestead.”
Mel Packer portrays a rather stoic Andrew Carnegie and Michael Sullivan appears as the cold and calculating Frick. For balance, Southers adds a character of his own, Raymond Washington, created by Wali Jamal provides an eyewitness account.
David Crawford’s description of his work as a “puddler” in the mill is a fascinating look at steelmaking tasks that required much strength and stamina. He shares that a reformer said to him: “It’s an outrage that men should have to work like this.” “They don’t have to,” he replied. “Nobody forced me to do this,” the puddler explains. “I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice.”
Crawford appears later as Robert Pinkerton with the chilling account of what the guards’ at first secret but somewhat doomed mission.
Juggling the roles of Carnegie Steel’s John Alfred Potter, steelworker John McLuckie, Ed Spear and others is the capable Jonathan Visser who creates a handful of memorable characters and their stories. His Ed Spear captivates as he describes the “trap” set for the arriving Pinkertons who traveled to Homestead on a barge but were not told their destination.
Marcus Muzzopappa portrays Pastor James J. McIlyer, one of the local clergy who eulogized slain workers and called for unionization as the solution for worker’s rights.
Susan McGregor-Laine takes an authentic turn as the Irish keeper of the Rolling Mill Tavern and a leading organizer Margaret “Mother” Finch and also Meredith Davies. The cast also features Kan Champion as union president William Weihe and James Howard who appears as Frick’s porter and others. Matt Henderson provides strong support in multiple roles.
When Russian activist Emma Goldman, played by Sara Fisher-Ventura reads of the strike in a New York newspaper, she rallies her colleague Alexander Berkman, portrayed by Arjun Kumar, to get involved. Following the strike, he attempts to assassinate Frick by shooting and stabbing him in his Pittsburgh office. Frick lives, but the strike dies. The characters gather on stage to share the epilogue and reinforce the importance of this history.
Southers concise dramatic retelling deserves long life as an educational and theatrical piece in our region and beyond. His script provides the Battle of Homestead Foundation with vignettes full of potential as stuff of interpretative history for future programs and docent-driven work.
The Homestead Strike of 1892 plays Friday and Saturday, September 22, and 23 at 7:00 pm, with matinees Friday at 1 pm and Sun. at 2:00 pm. More tickets have been made available for all remaining performances as the opening weekend sold out. Tickets are on sale for $20 at directly at: eventbrite.com
The Pump House is located at 880 East Waterfront Drive, adjacent to the Waterfront complex in Munhall (15120), past the Lowe’s side of the shopping area.
Southers’ play is part of a yearlong series of offerings to honor the Homestead battle and related history. Visit battleofhomestead.org for details. Events are funded in part by The Waterfront, The Rivers of Steel Heritage Area, United Steelworkers, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Read more about the strike and local labor history at Battle of Homestead Foundation
Photos by Lynne Squilla and Rosemary Trump