EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 30, 2010

Historical drama teaches fifth-graders about 1912 strike

By Yadira Betances

LAWRENCE — Wendy Lement grew up thinking history was boring, hating the subject so much she avoided taking college classes in the subject.

Lement had an epiphany when she learned about the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912.

"I loved the story because it involved the human aspect. They were people who were struggling and it was something I could relate to," she said.

Lement, artistic director of Theatre Espresso of Boston, wrote "American Tapestry: Immigrant Children of the Bread and Roses Strike," a play being performed for the city's fifth-graders at Lawrence Heritage State Park.

Students from the Arlington School were impressed by a recent show.

Irmarie Vega placed her hand over her mouth and gasped when she heard about the 13-year-old who suffered a head injury when her hair was caught in a gearshift.

Irmarie's eyes opened wider when she saw parents' anguish as they sent their children on trains to New York and Vermont or listened to stories of a family who had not eaten meat for several days.

"This is better than reading about it in a book, or having a teacher just tell you," said Irmarie, 11.

The fifth-graders were not only observers. After watching the strike unfold, students questioned witnesses why workers had to labor such long hours and what has happened to the mills over the years. The students looked over conflicting testimony, debated their views, and offered their own ideas on how to end the strike and improve conditions for millworkers.

Fifth-graders also played the roles of congressional committee members who met in March 1912 to investigate the conditions in the Lawrence mills.

Members of Theatre Espresso contacted Lawrence Heritage State Park during the summer about the idea for the performances — the last of which was scheduled for today.

James Beauchesne, visitor services supervisor at the park, was moved.

"They bring to life historic events in a way that's realistic and engaging to children," he said.

"The fear that people had, the whole concern, the hope, the emotion doesn't come as strongly when you read it in a book. Through the play the actors make it clear that people were making difficult choices that not only affected them, but us today," Beauchesne said.

Keri Ryan, a fifth-grade teacher at Arlington School, agreed.

"I thought it was great. The students live here, but they don't know about history of Lawrence," Ryan said.

"It's exciting for the students to see that this happened in the city where they live."

Lement came up with the idea for "American Tapestry" while a graduate student at Emerson College. She talked to strikers who are still alive and found their experiences fascinating.

To write the script, she listened to the oral histories, and read the 500 pages of congressional testimony as well as Bruce Watson's book, "Bread and Roses."

"The goal is to get kids thinking about history, specifically about this very familiar episode in Lawrence, which is not irrelevant to what people are living today," Beauchesne said.