If we've never heard of American sociologist, economist and workers-rights advocate Frances Perkins, then our educational system has let us down so badly.
If we've never heard of American sociologist, economist and workers-rights advocate Frances Perkins, then our educational system has let us down badly.
Born into a time when women had not yet won the right to vote, Perkins (1880-1965) went on to earn advanced academic degrees and ultimately to become the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she was the architect of much of his New Deal legislation, and was instrumental in enacting the first minimum wage law, the Social Security Act, unemployment insurance, child labor laws and much more.
This weekend, Taos Onstage Theatre shines a light on the life and achievements of this extraordinary pioneer with a one-woman show, written and performed by Charlotte Keefe.
The play is titled "If a Door Opens: A Journey with Frances Perkins." Performances are today through Saturday (March 28-30) at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee (March 31) at 2 p.m. All shows are at the new Taos Onstage Theatre at 101-A Camino de la Placita, in Cantu Plaza at the corner of Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
The show premiered in Taos in 2012 at Metta Theatre in El Prado, under the direction of Bruce McIntosh. Since then, Keefe, who is board president of Taos Onstage, has been invited to perform the play at venues around the country.
"She was quite a force of nature," Keefe said of Perkins. "I first heard of her when we were living in Lubbock, Texas. I belonged to Lubbock Democratic Women and someone gave a talk there about the woman behind the New Deal. My husband had always said I should do a one-woman show, but I didn't have a topic for it. During that talk it came to me, and I said it out loud to a friend so I had to follow through."
Keefe said the subject resonated with her "in part because my parents grew up in the Depression, and we heard a lot about [the New Deal]. I come from a working-class background. My father became a union electrician, and he certainly appreciated the rights the union had gained for them. So, finding out that it was a woman who actually got all that accomplished -- that was amazing. I now have Social Security because of Frances Perkins. She even tried to accomplish universal health care."
Keefe did extensive research in historical archives. "I started with her growing-up period, the influences and events in her life, her youth, all the experiences she had that would lead to her becoming the Secretary of Labor. That's why I call it a 'journey.' She grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. That was a factory town full of immigrants. She saw how they were treated, and she had so much empathy for the common working man and child."
Keefe said Perkins studied with professors who went to the factories and surveyed the working conditions. And later in her life she was responsible for getting fair labor legislation passed.
"It's amazing that people don't know that this woman's hard work is the reason we have Social Security, minimum wage, abolition of child labor - so much that we now take for granted," she said. "After every performance, people have come up to me and asked, 'How did I not know about this woman?' This was a person who understood both the humanity and the economics. She wanted to solve social ills and eliminate poverty."
Keefe spoke about the skills that Perkins developed in order to accomplish her vision in a world where women were seldom heard.
"She wasn't just a person who had ideas," Keefe said. "She was very thorough and would research, know her facts, and lay out the what and the how. She was willing to work with anyone, on any side of an issue, if it meant she could secure even part of what was needed. They called her a 'half-loaf girl' -- as in, 'half a loaf is better than none.' That was her way of working, and it was very effective. We take so much for granted now, and often don't consider the people whose hard work brought about these rights and freedoms that we enjoy. They were not necessarily supported at the time. She was accused of being a communist and went through quite an ordeal. She was blasted and criticized in the media, and there was a resolution of impeachment brought up against her. But she persevered. It was, for her, a moral obligation."
The show was polished in classes with McIntosh at Metta Theatre. "I asked Bruce if he would read it," Keefe said. "He gave me his thoughts, he would make suggestions and I'd bring back a rewrite. In 2012 he directed its premiere. Then, we started taking it other places. The most exciting experience was when the New Deal Association asked me to do the show for their conference. Frances' grandson was in the audience, and so was FDR's youngest granddaughter. I got to visit with them, and they were very complimentary. It was quite intimidating, and quite an honor."
Keefe decided this year to do the production one more time in Taos, in celebration of Women's History Month. "It's timely. The treatment of immigrants was a major theme in her work, and so was bipartisan cooperation. She understood that you have to work across the aisle and be open. If it's all or nothing, you're probably not going to get anything. That's reflected in the title of the show, 'If a Door Opens,' part of a motto she learned from her grandmother. She looked for the open doors and took every opportunity she could. She had a mission in life, she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish and she did it."
Tickets are $15. For advance ticket purchase, visit taosonstage.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (575) 224-4587.
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