Imagining a Movement: Gene Bruskin’s “The Moment Was Now”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]By Anne Haddad The labor movement has a rich history of music and lyrics -- songs that praise the dignity of workers and inspire solidarity among them. Songs about deserving roses as well as bread and sticking with the union. From this tradition, Gene Bruskin conceived his new musical, The Moment Was Now, which had its world premiere this month in Baltimore at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church Theater. The show deals head on with the fact that in 1869, the women’s suffrage movement, the men and women newly freed from slavery post-Civil War, and the white men leading the labor movement were unable to come together to steer our relatively new country toward a more equitable and just distribution of wealth. Gene Bruskin, playwright. Photo: John Elliott VThe meeting that takes place within the show is an imagined one between four historical figures, and inspired by another -- Frederick Douglass. What if Susan B. Anthony, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, William Sylvis, and Isaac Myers had come together in 1869 in Baltimore to establish a strong movement of solidarity against industrial and railroad barons such as Jay Gould? Unlike the folk ballads of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, the music in The Moment Was Now is inspired by blues, R&B, rap, and even opera. Musical director Glenn Pearson, along with assistant musical director Chester Burke, headed a small but powerful music ensemble that elevated the whole show. [caption id="attachment_6474" align="alignleft" width="400"] Gene Bruskin,, playwright. Photo: John Elliott V[/caption] The show is ably directed by Darryl LC Moch, who also portrays Isaac Myers, an African-American trade union leader and caulker from Baltimore. The power of the singers – especially Julia Nixon and Jenna Rose Stein – are what I found most remarkable about this musical. Nixon and Stein, in their respective solos, would have brought down the house even if it were not full of AFL-CIO and AFSCME members, which it was on the night that I attended. Ariel Jacobson as Sylvis and LeCount R. Holmes Jr. as Douglass completed the cast of talented professional vocalists. Stein, of Ashburn, Va., portrayed Susan B. Anthony. Women gained the right to vote ridiculously late in our nation’s history – I always knew that. But I am fortunate to have had that right all my life, so I needed Stein’s strong soprano to feel the injustice and impatience during her solo, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.” Nixon, of Washington, DC, was in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, and in this show portrayed Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, an African-American feminist we should all learn more about. Nixon’s solo, “Ain’t I a Woman,” is based on the speech by freed slave Sojourner Truth to the Women’s Convention of 1851. It is a stirring song worthy of a diva in a blues club, and Nixon has performed it in just that setting. I plan to look for an opportunity to hear her perform at Mr. Henry’s in DC. You’d expect a heavy dose of righteousness in this musical, especially if you have learned by reading an interview with Bruskin that he has spent most of his adult life as a labor organizer. But the righteousness feels right. The past-tense verb in the title refers to 1869 Baltimore during the post-Civil War Reconstruction, and the “Now” reminds the audience that even today, when different identity groups try to come together as a progressive movement, it isn’t easy to unite against a common oppressor. Solidarity across all of America’s workers has remained elusive. Sometimes solidarity expected your people to step back so someone else’s people could take their moment, as the show demonstrates. Even Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid” makes sure her husband has the job so he can take care of her. Anne Haddad is a Baltimore-based writer who, as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun from 1990-2000, was a proud member of The Newspaper Guild.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Imagining a Movement: Gene Bruskin’s “The Moment Was Now”