Changing times

Revisiting 20th-century progressivism
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 4, 2008
ONE-MAN CAST: Harlan Baker in Jimmy Higgins.

Jimmy Higgins: A Life In The Labor Movement, written and performed by Harlan Baker | Directed by Christopher Price | Presented Friday, June 6 at the Theater Project, in Brunswick; and Friday, June 13 at Acorn Studios in the Dana Warp Mill, in Westbrook | for tickets, contact Harlan Baker at 207.772.9640
The changes today's presidential candidates are talking about are modest in comparison with the radical leftist politics of the first half of the last century. An original one-man show about the life of a fictional labor activist and reporter — Jimmy Higgins: A Life in the Labor Movement, written and performed by Harlan Baker and directed by Christopher Price — celebrates the activist energy of the era.

Jimmy is an aged man, waxing nostalgic, as we meet him. It’s 1960, on the eve of the Nixon/Kennedy election, and he’s been asked to recall his life’s adventures for a college newspaper reporter. The gregarious Jimmy obliges, sipping whisky, as Baker’s work moves him through the major moments in early 20th-century radical and Labor politics.

What follows is a lot like novelist John Dos Passos’s famous U.S.A. trilogy, in that Jimmy experiences both actual political events and fictionalized personal ones. As he recalls headlines about the Titanic’s 1912 sinking and America’s 1917 declaration of war on Germany, he also recalls selling his dad’s lefty newspaper on the streets of Sandusky, Ohio, and later learning to set type. As he attends rallies in support of Eugene Debs and striking mill workers, he makes friends and develops crushes. As he fliers for the 1924 presidential campaign of the Progressive Party’s Robert LaFollette (who went on to win 17 percent of the popular vote, unprecedented for a third-party candidate), he meets his future wife. As he covers the 1930s union-organizing drives of Southern tenant farmers and auto workers, he has close calls with violence and bigotry.

As Jimmy remembers all this, he recreates myriad scenes and voices, taking on a great range of character work. He lets us hear the haughty, high-pitched ill-will of a local lady bigot with dachshunds, the barrel-chested German shopkeeper who gives him his first notebook, and the cotton share-cropper in eastern Arkansas who teaches him union songs. We hear discussions and arguments between Jimmy’s parents; between himself and his nasal and difficult movement friend Terrence; between himself and Irish cops, Italian protesters, and lovely lady activists. Baker’s voice work is virtuoso, convincing, and nicely balanced between comedy and drama. In some of his quicker (and quite difficult) exchanges between characters, he could be a little more physically consistent — for example, as in film editing, being sure to keep each character looking in the same direction as he cuts back and forth between them — but overall Baker’s scope and sensitivity is impressive. Perhaps most rousingly, we hear the words of old movement leaders. His recreation of Debs’s exhortations about war and capitalism are stupendous: With his voice on the verge of cracking from exertion, Baker makes one wistful for a passion and fury it is rare to encounter in today’s politicians.

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Related: Real activists know Jimmy Higgins, Break like the wind, Dance, Monkey: Billy Gardell, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Elections and Voting, Politics, U.S. Politics,  More more >
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