When Martin Luther King, Jr. went down to Memphis in 1968, it was to assist with a garbage worker's strike. Two workers had been slowly crushed to death in a garbage truck, an utterly horrible way to go. The workers moved to form a union, pushing for better wages but also some sort of safety or warning mechanism so no such accident could happen again. The mayor and other forces were, shall we say, less than accommodating.
The workers' strike is the subject of OyamO's play I Am A Man. Some background on OyamO and the play can be read here. Tavis Smiley's discussions with Memphis minister Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles and former sanitation worker Taylor Rogers also give important background (Kyles describes being there during King's last night).
The play was finished in 1992, and I saw one of the earlier major productions of it, an excellent one at Arena Stage in D.C. in 1995. King is a frequent presence in the play, but almost entirely as a voice coming over speakers, only briefly seen crossing the stage near the end (at least in the production I saw). The key figure is instead the head of the garbage workers, T.O. Jones, rivetingly played in the D.C . version (I'm afraid I currently can't confirm that actor's name). Despite the often serious subject matter, the play's full of humorous moments as well. I found it particularly fascinating to see all the infighting and resolutions between different groups, since, for instance, some parties wanted a more militant approach while others wanted no demonstrations at all. I saw it with a friend my age, and since we were too young to remember the actual events, it was very educational. However, this was not an 'eat-your-broccoli' piece - it was great theater, with some powerful moments.
OyamO describes Jones as:
40s, speaks with vocal, gestural and emotional ebullience. Beefy, but average height, very friendly, but also bullheaded about some things. Somewhat vulnerable, a bit fearful and not well educated, quit Memphis Public School in the 8th grade. But he's naturally intelligent – common street sense, a cajoling wit, a generous nature, a lot of heart.
The play script is written in dialect. Jones' wit and passion comes out in a confrontation at the city council, where to make a point, he points to the Memphis city seal (only low-res copies seem available, alas):
COUNCILMAN: Unacceptable! The city does not recognize that union and therefore will not entertain the showboat rantings of some so-called representative.
BLUESMAN: Rantin'! You wanna hear some rantin'? Let me tell you 'bout that city seal you got hanging over yo' head.
JONES: See dat steamboat? It brings slaves up and downriver for trading. The cotton boll? Dat's what da slaves pick ta make a few peepas rich. That oak leaf is where day tied the slave to beat him or where they hanged him. Used ta whip ya wit dem oak sticks too. Dat piece a machinery? Dat's the wheel of progress dat grine the slave up. Da Civil War ova, but we still fighting against slavery. Chop cotton for three dollas a dat or tote garbage for one dolla and sixty cents a hour. Da union come here ta finally stop slavery.
My favorite exchange is this one between Jones and Joshua Solomon, a white labor negotiator from New York:
SOLOMON: The press has got to be spoonfed. You can't ignore them when you're conducting a public strike. They'll nail you to the wall. Look, one question I have to ask. Why the hell did ya call a strike in February when garbage don't stink?
JONES: Garbage stink all the time, when you got ta carry it on yo' head.
Still, what's stuck with me the most years later is the following monologue. It was a stunner. The Arena's main stage is just that, an arena set-up, with the audience on all four sides. Throughout the play, a bluesman plays sort of a Greek chorus, making comments and playing music. Here, Jones has just gotten bad news. He's at his lowest point, even while the stakes are the highest. He's trying to rescue some scrap of dignity in the face of continual, crushing degradation. As you read through this speech, imagine it being delivered with great weight, each few sentences a separate point, with Jones slowly walking around all four sides, looking at the audience, almost imploring. The lights are low except for a spotlight on Jones. Imagine the bluesman wailing away on his harmonica in the background.
(The BLUESMAN strums a low, funky blues as the Lights and Images swift to a Beale St. Bar which he enters. JONES shortly stumbles in, now drunk. He, bottle in hand, stands swaying before the BLUESMAN. He begins dancing, slowly, dancing out of sorrow. The song's refrain goes as follows:]
BLUESMAN: THE GRAVEDIGGER IS YO' VERY BEST FRIEND
THE GRAVEDIGGER IS YO' VERY BEST FRIEND
HE ONLY LET YOU DOWN ONCE NO MATTER WHAT YOU BEEN
[JONES stops dancing, angrily hurls the bottle which breaks offstage. He speaks to no one in particular the following over the background instrumental accompaniment of the BLUESMAN:]
JONES: When I was toting garbage, I knowed every alcoholic in town, da ones live in da shacks and da ones what living high in the big houses. I knowed who was creepin' 'round some back doe on day husband or wife. I knowed who was taking high price drugstore drugs and street drugs. I run to the back of da house ta git da garbage and I seed all kinda womens in the window. Naked! Not a stitch on! Justa lookin' down at ole stinkin', black, empty-face me, and smilin' real big. I seed big impo'tent men in dis town beating on soft, little white womens in da back bedrooms. I heard dem womens scream and beg for mercy. I once seed a father touchin' his near 'bout growed up daughter, touchin' her where no fatha 'sposed to touch his daughter. One time I pulled a dead baby from the garbage, a little white baby, blood still fresh. Somebody throwed it in the garbage behine a fine mansion. And peepas treat me like I stink. Nothin' stinks worse den the da garbage dat da garbage man leave behine everyday.
[Jones staggers out.]
I'm sorry my description can't do it justice, but if you had seen this one performed, it'd have stuck with you years afterward, too. Jones has a later, bitter monologue after King is killed, remarking that all they got was an eight cent raise, "eight shiny pennies" and "not even thirty pieces of silver" for King. He finally puts on a brave face and urges the striking men to go back to work. When I think about I Am A Man, or King, I think about the importance of human dignity, and the cruel things we sometimes do to each other. It's a good day to remember how fostering simple kindness and connection isn't just essential — it's sometimes the most revolutionary act in the world.
(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)