ABOUT THE PROJECT
Oakland 1946!In 1946, there were six general strikes in the United States; since then, there have been none. The Oakland Work Holiday of 1946, as it was called, was an act of solidarity with striking retail clerks at Kahn’s and Hastings department stores that rapidly evolved into a remarkable experience of community activism for its more than 100,000 participants. Throughout Oakland, neighbors and strangers refused to show up at their workplaces. Instead, they talked and marched, shared free food, danced in the streets, and came together as working people to demand respect during a crucial moment in U.S. history. The physical site that served as focal point for the work holiday was Latham Square, which stills exists today at the intersection of Broadway and Telegraph in downtown Oakland. Now, nothing much ever happens there – the square is neither thoroughfare nor park, just a triangular piece of sidewalk with a large funny and disused fountain at its peak. Though it’s hard to picture today, at one point the large department stores Kahn’s and Hastings bordered each side of the square. And from December 2nd through 5th, 1946, the streets around Latham Square were packed with thousands of people protesting for improved working conditions in the East Bay.
On December 5th and December 7th, 2008, a group of local artists, writers, and activists performed a theatrical reenactment of the Oakland General Strike in Latham Square. Oakland 1946! included more than a dozen performers inviting the audience to witness and participate in a performative memorial of this remarkable part of Oakland’s past. Worker representatives from ongoing Oakland labor struggles were also present to share their stories with the community and help create a connection between past and present labor issues in Oakland. With 200 spectators present for the Friday evening reenactment and 100 participating in the Sunday matinee, Oakland 1946! began as a street theater play and turned in a rally, with spectators joining in the fun and listening to local workers tell their stories through bullhorns.
Created through a collaborative process by a loose-knit group of writers, activists, actors, historians, Oakland 1946! was created to honor the history of the original Oakland strikers. Those of us who instigated the project hoped that the interactive nature of the performance and the inclusion of present-day issues in the narrative of the play would help take history out of the books and “into the streets,” thereby encouraging conversation and action in the community. We wanted people not just to know about this interesting thing that happened a long time ago in this rather mundane traffic intersection, but we also hoped that by experiencing a hint of what it might be like to participate in such an event, spectators would be actively helping us challenge the concept of history as being made up of still, objective facts.
During the performance, the audience was asked to participate in “reenacting” the original event, giving them a personal and action-based investment in and experience of the narrative. An ensemble of volunteers and audience members helped play strikers, and were given picket signs and assisted in participating in activities that occurred during the original strike, such as picketing, dancing, and community outreach. Taking a cue from direct action protests, during the performance the core group of actors serve as “affinity group leaders,” with the worker characters leading a small group of audience members in a reenactment of a picket line, the “big boss” character leading a group of “scabs” and strikebreakers in the dramatic conflict, and the trolley driver character leading the “everyday citizens” who joined in the action.
In our research, some important questions remained unanswered. We think it is critical to vocalize these questions, as dynamics of power, race, and gender continue to be a part of the labor movement today.
• How did racism in the East Bay and in the labor movement contribute to the fact that despite the existence of thriving Chinese and African American communities at the time, most of the people in the photos and records of the general strike are white?
• What gender dynamics were at play as the union leaders, who were all men, ended the general strike without a contract for the mainly women retail workers?
• It is important to note that the trolley drivers, who played such an integral role in sparking the general strike, also actively fought against the efforts by African Americans to desegregate their workplace. The first African American trolley driver to be hired in the Key System in the East Bay was in 1951, despite desegregation campains since the 1930’s.
In addition, through the experience of creating and performing this show, we (and hopefully the audience) grappled with challenging questions about the very nature of place, history, and social movements:
• How is history created or passed on? Why do some stories last and some fade from collective memory?
• Whose history is told? And by whom, how, and where?
• How does the public perception of a physical place change when the history of that structure/site is revealed?
• How do creative arts express historical and current social movement demands and goals?
• How can creative arts best do work about social movements that is actually able to actively be a part of those same social movements?
These are big questions. We don’t claim to answer them, only to be capable of continuing to ask them and look for ways to express our answers. We hope that you, too, will ask them of yourself and your work and your city. Oakland. Think about your city. The next time you walk through a nondescript intersection, ask yourself, “What happened here? Does it matter to me?”
Then tell everyone.
—Manjula Martin and The Oakland 46ers
The original performance blog can be found here.
A local interview discussing process and performance at Artopic.org can be found here.
Aid & Abet (local blog) review can be found here.
TextOakland 1946! Final Script by Manjula Martin
Oakland 1946! Program by Manjula Martin
Oakland 1946! Final Budget by Manjula Martin
Oakland 1946! Press Release by Manjula Martin