by Brandon Littlejohn
The Foundry Theatre presents FUREE in Pins & Needles A New Revolutionary Musical in Brooklyn. Starring members of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), this refreshed production of Pins & Needles is truly A New Revolutionary Musical Theater Experience in Brooklyn. If you like your entertainment with a dash of political activism and social justice on the side, FUREE in Pins & Needles is the show to see.
In 1936 the International Ladies Garment Workers Union acquired the old Princess Theatre (at 39th St. and 6th Ave) and began holding classes in drama, dance, and music for its union members. For eighteen months, the company worked in the factories by day and rehearsed Pins & Needles by night. Their goal was to create a new kind of theatre. One that was enjoyable for its members, but also focused on the major themes of their time: labor unions, racial equality, fair justice, commitment to freedom, and concern for the common worker. Sound familiar?
Now, almost a lifetime later, many of these same issues are serious concerns for those living and working in New York City and its boroughs. Just like their predecessors from 1936, FUREE members rehearsed three times a week for 6 months, while continuing to work their day jobs. The result was a moving, entertaining show that reshaped my opinion of “community theatre.”
With moves choreographed by Camille A. Brown, 1930s garb designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, and music, arranged by Richard Harper, the FUREE cast was transformed from activists by day to theatre stars and starlets by night. They delivered an impassioned performance that felt more like a testimony and less of a staged show. With each number, it became crystal clear that the members of FUREE were performing from a place of truth. They painted a picture of a landscape that hasn't changed much over the past 75 years—unnecessary struggle is still a painful reality for too many people.
The scene “In a Public Assistance Office” was a hilarious comedic performance about how frustrating getting a little help can be. Anyone that has ever been to a government office can relate (think Department of Motor Vehicles on its worst day!). Donna Douglas and Stephen Barnes really strutted their stuff in “Doing the Reactionary” with amazing footwork and grace. Earlyn Kizzy Ferguson gave an outstanding vocal performance of “There’s a Man Goin’ Round Takin’ Names” which sent the audience into an uproarious applause as the final note resonated in the house. Cynthia Butts, Nova Strachan, Wanda Imasuen, Marilyn Charles aka Lady Venus, and Shannon Barber offered stand out performances as well. When this ensemble took the stage, I didn’t want to see them leave. Perhaps the most moving scene was “Activists Born” where this Fab 5, sans 1930s costuming, shared their abbreviated personal histories revealing how they came to be proud and "FUREEous” members of this impressive organization.
This cast of community organizers was vibrating at the height of its artistic ability. That’s the best any director, or theatergoer could ask of any dancer, singer, or actor. That is to give the best of what you have to give and to fully lend yourself to the work!
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.” It’s obvious that organizations like FUREE are still effectively marrying art and social justice issues in order to affect change.
Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) is a Brooklyn-based multiracial organization made up of almost exclusively women of color. "We organize low-income families to build power to change the system so that all people's work is valued and all of us have the right and economic means to decide and live out our own destinies." For more information about FUREE check out www.furee.org.
A proud University of Michigan Alumnus, Brandon Littlejohn is currently working as a creative director/A & R administrator in New York City. Follow him at www.twitter.com/1987productions & www.facebook.com/1987productions.
FUREE in Pins & Needles through July 9th. Click here for tickets or call 212 352-3101. The Irondale Theater Center is located at 85 South Oxford, Fort Greene, Brooklyn.