The Rosies of Richmond make riveting subject matter in This World in a Woman's Hands

The image of a strapping white woman in a headscarf and overalls flexing her guns under the slogan "We Can Do It!" has become a cultural icon in this country since graphic artist J. Howard Miller created the poster bearing the figure in 1942. Strongly associated with an important piece of history, this picture of "Rosie the Riveter" represents the women who worked men's jobs during the Second World War, making ships, airplanes, and ammunition while the men were away fighting.

What many people beyond the Bay Area don't realize is the image's close association with Richmond. The careworn East Bay town betrays little of its heroic past. But during World War II, Richmond was the site of four huge shipyards. Manned — or, rather, womanned — by vast production lines of female workers, these manufacturing centers were responsible for building more vessels during the war effort than any other shipyard in the nation. Today, they are part of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. That the women managed to build a staggering 750 ships in the Richmond shipyards during the war testifies to their teamwork. Though social and political challenges threatened to derail their efforts, the Rosies stuck together to support the war effort.

It is this spirit of togetherness that comes across most powerfully in Shotgun Players' riveting new play, This World in a Woman's Hands. Marcus Gardley's world premiere drama draws on the real-life stories of the women who worked in the Richmond shipyards during wartime. Set in the early 1940s, with flash-forward sequences to the present, the story centers on a poor, black Louisianan, Gloria Cutting (the mercurial Margo Hall), who abandons her child to try her luck out west. Gloria hopes to earn a living as a welder and eventually send for her young daughter.

The Richmond Rosies built a staggering 750 ships during World War II.
Jessica Palopoli
The Richmond Rosies built a staggering 750 ships during World War II.

The characters prize solidarity and teamwork above all else, even in the face of racial inequality, blackmail, unionization, financial woes, and the eventual dissolution of the work teams following the return of their male counterparts. Powerfully led by director Aaron Davidman, Shotgun's creative team also embodies this spirit of togetherness. Rumor has it that the play's two-year development wasn't exactly smooth. But the bumps, such as they were, don't show. The plot might be full of dramatic tension, but harmony rules onstage: The nine-strong, all-female cast collaborates in seamless synchronicity to make Gardley's play sing.

Literally. Music welds the characters and scenes together to give This World an irresistible flow and feeling of communion. Composed by jazz vocalist Molly Holm (a longtime member of Voicestra, Bobby McFerrin's improvisational ensemble), the show's mostly a cappella score mixes close-knit jazz and blues harmonies, playful scat singing, and blazing spirituals to create a sonic landscape that evokes the 1940s while feeling contemporary. Live accompaniment by jazz bassist Marcus Shelby counterbalances the women's high voices.

Even the script has its own internal music, which further enhances the teamwork onstage. Gardley combines percussive nonsense words like "oonka chica" and "bup kee up," which convey a feeling of a production line, with regular language that is alternately gritty and lyrical. When shipyard worker Eva offers a hungry yet standoffish Gloria an apple, the warm body language of the other women as they encourage Gloria to accept Eva's gift belies the coarse exchange:

Eva: Here. You look hungry enough to eat corns off a toe.

Gloria: Don't worry 'bout how I look. I ain't yo' husband. 'Sides, I ate 'fore I got here.

Eva: Course you did. That was called breakfast. This here's lunch —

Gloria: I know what it is. I just ain't hungry.

Eva: Course you ain't. You just shakin' 'cause you cold ... though it's hot as the devil's breath out here. It's no wonder you're skinny as a skate; you ain't eatin' enough.

Gloria: I eats plenty.

Eva: That's piss. I done seen more meat on a neck bone. You swallow your pride, woman, and eat this apple.

Gloria: You eat it. I don't know where your hands been.

Elsewhere, in a scene set in contemporary Richmond where a group of local women stage a protest in the wake of the murder of a local teen, a sudden, comical outburst of poetry-slam–style rap from one of the characters helps galvanize the group's collective feelings about street crime. "Yo, breezees, be easy," the hoodie-wearing hip-hop proselytizer says. "We holdin' this down for the 'hood, fo' sheezy. Just be cheesy; it's all good."

A sense of ensemble is an elusive but crucial component of the performance-making process. The longstanding success of some of the world's most iconic theater companies, such as Russia's Moscow Art Theatre, England's Complicité, Germany's Berliner Ensemble, and the U.S.'s Living Theatre, owes much to their collective approach. Shotgun's production epitomizes what can be achieved when a group of like-minded artists overcomes adversity to present a unified and deeply creative front.

The same rules that apply in theater often apply in life. Just as Rosie the Riveter declared "We Can Do It!," so the Obama presidential campaign intoned "Yes We Can." Individual inspiration can get a person only so far. It takes extraordinary teamwork to build ships, win elections, and put on captivating plays.

 
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