The power of one

Vivian Nesbitt performs a one-woman musical about the legendary Mother Jones


Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930) is a historical figure most commonly known as Mother Jones. In the early 1900s, she emerged as an outspoken labor organizer. She rallied on behalf of child labor laws and improved working conditions; all while railing against the most powerful industrialists of her time.

In 1902 Mother Jones was dubbed "The Most Dangerous Woman in America" by a West Virginia judge.

And now, actor Vivian Nesbitt brings Mother Jones to life in a commanding one-woman musical performance.

"Mother Jones in Heaven: A Musical" will be performed Friday and Saturday (July 20-21), 7:30 p.m., and Sunday (July 22), 3 p.m., at Metta Theatre, 1470 Paseo del Pueblo Norte in El Prado.

The "Mother Jones in Heaven" songbook and script were written by social activist Si Kahn, and first performed in 2014. Nesbitt plays -- or rather, embodies -- Mother Jones, singing 10 original songs and telling stories that take theatergoers on an emotional journey. On stage, John Dillon accompanies Nesbitt on guitar and plays the supporting role of bartender.

The opening scene of the musical is amusing and straightforward: Mother Jones arrives in heaven to discover that the afterlife is identical to her favorite Irish pub in Maryland.

The press announcement states that over the course of the one-hour performance, Mother Jones looks back over her life, balancing the scales as she sifts through her storied past, weaving moments of profound insight with hilarious tales of a hellion in her prime.

"We forget that it's because of the labor unions and the people who fought for our rights, that they brought us the eight-hour workday and the five-day workweek," Nesbitt said. "We forget that's it's because of people like Mother Jones is the reason why (in some jobs) we wear protective gear. When we forget, we start normalizing that and taking things for granted. The privileges we take as absolute rights were fought for by the blood, sweat and tears of people who came before us."

Dillon added, "We're starting to see this (presidential) administration chip away at these rights that people like Mother Jones fought to protect."

Many in Taos may recognize Nesbitt and Dillon from the nationally syndicated public radio show "Art of the Song." Kahn, a singer-songwriter, is an alumnus of that show.

"I met Si 12 years prior," Nesbitt said. "We were collegial at conferences and saw each other in different capacities over the years. We became very aware of his community organizer work. He was a Civil Rights worker in the '60s and '70s."

Nesbitt explained she felt compelled to pick up this project, as if she almost didn't have a choice. She found there was something profound in the script and songbook material. For example, Mother Jones had been a wife and a mother who managed to take her grief (she lost her husband and her children) and she transmuted those personal difficulties into social action.

"She could've gone barking mad, she could've become a person shrieking on the street corner. But the choice she made, to take the anger and rage and put to use, is a lesson for us in our time," Nesbitt said.

This weekend-long performance in Taos kicks off Nesbitt and Dillon's national tour of the show, with performances on both coasts and select cities scheduled well into 2019. In September, they head to North Carolina to record a cast album ("a cast of one," Nesbitt said with a laugh), which will be produced by Kahn.

"Don't miss this performance," wrote poet James Navé, who caught their first public performance at the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival in North Carolina this past January. "Nesbitt's performance was note-perfect, restrained and yet exuberant, shy and yet bold, loving and yet full of piss and vinegar."

Nesbitt is a teaching artist with an masters degree in acting and previously ran an acting school in Albuquerque. She has appeared in "Breaking Bad," "The Night Shift," and "Longmire" to name a few, as well Broadway and Off-Broadway theater.

For the Taos production, the stage setting is sparse with a couple of tables and chairs depicting the Irish pub scene. Dillon sits stage left and has two guitars set up around him. Nesbitt walks back and forth between the bar and the pub table singing 10 songs and telling the stories that lead up to them.

"The costuming is really developed. Rebecca Sagemiller of El Rito is creating the overdress I wear in the show. Mother Jones is always in black because she's always in mourning. I found the right fabric and the right person," Nesbitt said.

"Mother Jones in Heaven" as being about the power of one person and how much one can achieve when they put their mind to it, Nesbitt concludes.

Dillon said, "If you're concerned at all about our political situation, 'Mother Jones in Heaven' is an inspiration to see how one person can take their power of one and make a difference."

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. For more information, call (575) 758-1104.