Making Music from the Reconstruction Era

Anti-Racism Unions Wade's World

New OrleansI’ve known Gene Bruskin for forty years or so.  We date back to when he was loaned to Local 100 by the AFL-CIO from some training or development program employing him at the time to help us with a series of elections for parking lot workers in New Orleans.  Over the decades he continued to purse that craft, most notably in a victory at the Smithfield meat plants that was likely the highwater mark of his career.  None of that was really the reason that I was talking to him again on Wade’s World.  He had been a guest in 2017 discussing a play he had written.  Now, six years later, we were talking about a musical that he had also written and produced called The Moment Was NowWhat’s going on here?

Turns out, to hear Gene tell the story, he was interested in the theater from the very beginning, but not finding work there while trying to break into that business, he was driving a bus.  When the drivers organized a union, he was in it all the way, and ended up as president of the local.  One thing led to another, he latched on as an organizer, and away he went.  What didn’t go away was his interest in the theater, so when he retired, he went back to his first love with the added dimension that he wanted to tell stories that merged his avocation with the themes and politics that had been his vocation, thinking that might be an effective way get to the point across.  In other words, he didn’t really flip the script so much as change the venue.

The Moment Was Now is a musical.  Gene set the scene in the Baltimore area where he lives at a meeting of the National Labor Union, a 200,000-member early labor union effort that was having a meeting in the 1870s that drew an interesting and important crowd debating how to deal with reconstruction after the Civil War.  Not only were leaders and organizers of the NLU at the meeting, but so were some other big names at the time, including Fredrick Douglass, the great African-American abolitionist, and Susan B. Anthony, most well-known as an advocate for women’s right to vote, but less well-known as a labor activist and organizer at the time.  

What a crew!  No doubt, it is easy to imagine that Gene found a fertile field to talk about workers, women, race, and about anything that might fall between with such an illustrious cast.  I’m a guy who runs from musicals as fast as my legs will carry me.  I don’t get them.  The sudden break in the dialogue for someone to begin singing at the top of their lungs seems so artificial, that I’m out of there.  Somehow Gene is making it work though.  This show ran well before labor and other crowds.  We signed up for the film version for our union’s 2023 leadership conference.  Gene has another musical he’s working on now about John Brown, the armed abolitionist hanged after his attack on the armory at Harpers’ Ferry.  Stay tuned for that.

Maybe I’m not the only one that needs to get past my prejudice borne of Hair, South Pacific, and Cats.  The subjects are compelling, so maybe we should listen carefully to the singing to hear the message.