Remembering the Winnipeg General review
Written by Thomas McKechnie. Directed by Erin Brandenberg. Until July 6 at the Owl’s Club, 847 Dovercourt Road. Zietpunk Theatre.
Nearly 100 years ago, left-wing labour organizations across the USSR, Britain, Germany and the United States created what’s now known as the Workers’ Theatre Movement; it was a way of continuing to promulgate socialist ideals even after a sobering strike defeat, like Britain’s nine-day-long General Strike in 1926. Without relying on its audiences to be literate, the agitprop power of Workers’ Theatre lies in its satire of the elite class, its emphasis on the collective rather than the individual (singing, for instance), and it’s crystal clear embrace of socialist (and often Communist) values.
Workers’ Theatre had an impact in Canada as well, later in the 1930s, especially for the left-wing B.C. political party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. And while the movement faded afterward, playwright Thomas McKechnie thinks it’s high time for a revival, and he’s doing so with his new play Remembering the Winnipeg General.
Directed by Erin Brandenberg, the play has two performers (Heather Marie Annis and Ximena Huizi) regale the audience with the (truly incredible) story of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which shut down the entire city’s economy with 30,000 workers — from masons to police officers to the “Hello Girls,” a.k.a. telephone operators — refusing to work from May 15 to June 26, arguing for recognition of the labour union and for wages to keep up with inflation. Annis and Huizi rotate through key players, from union leaders to notable strikers to the businessmen trying to quash them, as they give a historical timeline to the events and interject with more contemporary observations from the here and now. Huizi’s anxious, falsely affable delivery of her line “Because nothing has chaaaanged” when comparing the Harper government’s Bill C-24 to a similar one passed during the strike is the most obvious verbal affirmation of a message that rings throughout the entire play, very intentionally drawn by McKechnie and Brandenburg. It’s clear why this play is titled Remembering the Winnipeg General; we are supposed to be reading the similarities between the circumstances that brought about that movement and the one’s we’re living in right now — and they make a convincing argument.
There’s a sense of wonder and awe that the Winnipeg General Strike inspires that all at once feels familiar and foreign, a mirror to us in this moment with a sensibility that’s of another time. Maybe it’s hope? Maybe it’s a lack of 2019’s digital isolation? I had more than one occurrence of millennial consternation during the show, which was thankfully reflected in a similar instance of panic and frustration by Annis, to which Huizi softened with a hug before they could continue their story.
Shannon Lea Doyle’s design gives an appropriately grassroots atmosphere to the performance: hand-painted banners lit by hanging fixtures and two floor lamps, tin foil trays double as footlights at the front of the stage area, props including cabbage heads and plasticine figures (red, naturally), costumes with cartoonish fake moustaches with weak adhesive (played to perfect comedic effect by Annis and Huizi, using Annis’s experience in clown as one half of the duo Morro and Jasp), all within an old legion hall on Bloor West with live music by Kristine Schmitt, complete with tables set up at the entrance with pamphlets about current labour issues and Indigenous non-profits. Tickets are available for $ 5, $ 25, or $ 40 dollars, depending on what you can afford.
The show’s nearly aggressive love of camaraderie (the actors even call each other “Friend”) sometimes feels at odds with the reality of bringing human beings into a room together — several audience polls on divisive topics don’t take into account that the room and the play don’t necessarily invite political dissent, and Huizi’s declarations of “I win!” when the audience (inevitably) sides with her (more progressive) argument is an odd celebration of an individual success over the collective’s, so important to the rest of the production and it’s message.
But Remembering the Winnipeg General not only marks the 100th anniversary of the strike, it also arrives at a time where unions and labour issues are becoming more prevalent in certain industries — new media sites like Buzzfeed and gig economy jobs like Foodora bike couriers (which McKechnie is leading) are attempting to unionize right now. There’s always a level of discomfort when a play so obviously criticizes the economic system in which it was created and therefore intrinsically linked to (there is an interesting moment here in which Huizi and Annis thank the show’s government founders, leaving one particular council out for a very specific reason), but perhaps it’s time for Workers’ Theatre to join the fray in more venues beyond the legion hall.
Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga