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6/15/2024        THE WASH        Synchronicity Theatre / Impact Theatre


Missing from my knowledge base is (or at least was) the 1881 Atlanta Washerwoman’s Strike.  And yet, this incident was a formative part of the history of labor in America, a full-scale action that achieved its goals and set the stage (and the mechanisms) for labor conflicts that still echo today.  And yet most histories (even histories of the labor movement) gloss over it or relegate it to a footnote.  Even its Wikipedia page is depressingly brief with only a handful of cited sources.


Now, The Wash, a new play by Kelundra Smith, brings it to painful and victorious life, and I am grateful, not only for the history lesson, but for the beautifully written, extraordinarily performed experience.  This play was workshopped last year and is now being co-produced by Synchronicity Theatre and Hapeville’s Impact Theatre, before getting a “Rolling Premiere” by the National New Play Network (NNPN).


Anna and Jeanie operate a Laundry in 1881 (Jim Crow) Atlanta, catering to white clientele who (often) pay in (literally) dried beans, if at all.  They are facing a property tax deadline and bills of their own.  They launch the Washing Society, a group of 20 working black laundresses.  Their demands aren’t extravagant – a guaranteed wage of $1 per twelve-pounds of laundry (extra for quilts and blankets).  But Mayor English and the privileged class of Atlanta refuse to offer even these minor crumbs, and insist the workers get only what their clients choose to pay.

So a strike is called.  Within three weeks, bolstered by a few black churches, their 20-member group expands to over 3,000 workers NOT doing laundry.  The police are called in, arrests are made for “Disturbing the Peace,” fines are levied, spouses are fired from their jobs, but still the women will not yield.  Eventually, even white workers join the strike, and they are much more difficult to intimidate or arrest or bully or kick-when-down.


It should be noted that this is a mere twenty-some years after the end of slavery, and black women have few job options.  Their families have been ripped asunder, and many are single mothers or living in abusive relationships.  And still, they persevere.  Ms. Smith has created a roster of (fictional) characters (who may have parallels in the actual women involved), and given them full lives, full personalities, and back stories that (painfully) illustrate the times and racist paradigms they have few hopes of subverting.  Jewel is a teacher at a school that will not tolerate even a hint of political expression.  (That her dearest co-working at the school is Delores, and just may be a  “friendship” that cannot, can never be expressed to anyone becomes marginally significant).   Thomasine has a drunk and abusive husband, and she must (secretly) break the strike just to survive.  Charity is very happily married to a good husband and is trying to bear their first child.  The one white character, Mozelle, has secrets of her own that impel her to join the strike. Secrets I will leave to you to discover.


These are smart (if undereducated) characters who bring this story to life, who make it real and compelling, who bond and squabble and mistrust and create a vivid tapestry of working-class life in Atlanta.  They also do whatever they must in the service of their strike, and, as it continues, the white residents of Atlanta must go about their day-to-day in uncleaned (and increasingly malodorous) clothing.  1881 was a pungent summer in Atlanta!

All the characters speak beautifully in what (I assume) are accurately thick drawls, projections fill us in on details of the strike (and white media’s response to it), music underscores much, evoking spirituals and folk songs of the time (kudos to Music Director Tasha Smith’s soundscape that enhances mood even as it provides lyrical connections between the most dissimilar of characters). Costume Designer Dr. L. Nyrobi Moss’s work evokes era and class and character, Kat Conley’s set shows us a simple space that functions as laundry, kitchen, meeting hall, providing a “Clothes-line curtain” that holds the fruits of the women’s works and creates screening for Kimberly Binns’ projections and videos.  This is a play that is beautiful to see, elegant to hear, and heartbreaking to contemplate.


As to the cast, all turn in wonderfully distinct and complete characterizations.  Nevaina’s Jeanie is especially memorable – an eccentric no-nonsense too-young-to-really-be-a-grandmother friend and warrior.  As Anna, Tanya Freeman is determined and strong, even when she has been half-blinded protecting the very pregnant Charity (a sweet and effective Makallen Kelley).  Kenedi Deal’s Jewel is young and idealistic, struggling to protect her secrets yet courageous in “doing what must be done.”  Thomasine is played by a severe Jamila Turner, who allows moments of gentleness show through the starchy exterior.  And Charis Sellick brings enough mystery to Mozelle that we can be suspicious of her motives, yet still be moved when those motives receive their just due subtext.


More than the individual performances, though, this cast gels into a beautifully realized ensemble, a group of (reluctant) friends and co-workers who truly complement each other and synchronize into a solidarity that cannot be denied.  This is the true lesson of this moment in history – The “power” of the privileged employers will crumble when faced with a determined wall of rebellion, or at least when faced with another week of fetid and reeking undergarments. Brenda Porter’s direction gets every moment perfect and sets a pace that carries us to the too-soon dénouement and conclusion.


Kelundra Smith’s The Wash brings to life a (mostly) forgotten moment of Atlanta History, two short months that changed the power dynamics between black working women and their white employers, that created the template for every labor action since then, a template used by the recent actions by Starbucks and Amazon employees.  It is a brilliantly performed, beautifully staged look at the past, a past that has disturbing echoes in our current divisively racial political climate.


I cannot recommend this play highly enough!

     -- Brad Rudy (   #1881AtlantaWasherwomenStrike  #SynchroTheatre   #ImpactTheatre    #TheWash)



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