THREADS OF SILVER AND GOLD: Women of the Panama Canal

A Classic Theatre of St. Augustine Review

A Classic Theatre Inc. of St. Augustine, Florida presents the world premier of Playwright Deborah B. Dickey’s “Threads of Silver and Gold: Women of the Panama Canal” at the Pioneer Barn at Fort Menendez, located at 259 San Marco Avenue. The play opened on October 22, 2015 and will continue during October 28 – 30. For reservations and additional information, visit aclassictheatre.org.

The Dual Critics attended the first Sunday matinee of this new work, and noted that a majority of those in the audience were women, who no doubt were as curious as we were about the women of the Panama Canal. We were also anxious to learn more about the canal itself, since our daily lives are so dependent on goods transported by ship through the canal and delivered to ports along the Eastern coastline.

The Panama Canal celebrated its 100th anniversary on August 15, 2014. It remains one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time. Ms. Dickey, a University of Florida graduate with an MFA in acting and directing, wrote the play in honor of the anniversary. Materials at the Panama Canal Museum Collection at UF provided a primary source for the basis of the play.

Our research found that this project was first started in 1880 by the French who spent $260 million dollars, and had 20,000 deaths while it was under their control. The United States paid $40 million dollars to France for the rights and property.

Work on the canal began in 1904 and Ms. Dickey’s play begins with Act One covering the construction years of 1904 – 1914. The first question the play answered was: “Why were women in the Canal Zone in the first place?” It seems that the men involved with the project insisted women must be allowed to be there.

The play opens with a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt, played marvelously by Kelly McTaggart. He introduced his audience to the project and inspired those involved in the project to proceed.

 

During the next hour of the show, various women in locations throughout Panama spoke of bits and pieces of their lives during this massive undertaking. Tony Lang Philips as a West Indian Woman told us many of the unskilled laborers were recruited from the British colonies of the West Indies; Barbados provided 20,000 workers. They were paid ten cents an hour for a ten-hour day, and out of this, were required to pay thirty cents a day for meals.

Chelsye P. Ginn played a North American wife, who related information about some of the creatures found in Panama. The list was long, and included ants, mosquitoes, monkeys, mountain lions, hogs, and most disgusting of all, bed bugs.

Carmel Rowley portrayed an English lady from London, who spoke of the dilapidated quarters she and her husband were initially given and of the maids who were totally untrained. She was not totally negative, as she praised beautiful flowers, butterflies, and lizards.

The second male in the play was well-known local character actor Patric Robinson, as Ice Man and Don LeFevre, First Secretary of the Legation of Panama. In supporting roles were Shiray Thomas as Sarah/Native Woman, Joy Manning as Mrs. O’Brien/ Native Woman, and Jan LoPresti-Beach as Kay.

Before we continue with the second act, an explanation of the ‘silver and gold’ in the title, which refers to the payment system for the workers, is in order. Because of the constant rain and humidity, coins were used rather than paper currency. American and English employees were a small but privileged group of skilled and semi-skilled workers, who were paid with gold coins, while common laborers from elsewhere were paid in silver. The gold coins were worth far more than the silver ones, and this early payroll system contributed to widespread economic disparity and racial discrimination, which was prevalent for many years.

Act Two, which takes place in 1990 in San Diego, California and Colon, Panama, is a time of reflection on the past, and performers from the first act returned in individual roles. Grandma Harrison is ninety-five years old, and related the story of her life as a young woman. Vanessa Warner joined the cast as Annie Wright Calvit, born in 1886, and also had stories of those early times.

Patric Robinson appeared as Henry Banister, a worker from the West Indies, who, with much hard work and a lot of luck, managed to survive to a ripe old age. He considered himself blessed as many men died; there was a funeral train that left the work site for the burial ground every day. After new workers arriving on ships were processed, they were immediately measured for a coffin; records show that over five thousand workers died while the project was under United States control during the early years of construction.

Tom Mangan, who was the Technical Director / Production Designer /Stage Manager, had the actors sitting in chairs just off-stage prior to entrances for individual scenes. Historical photographs of the era were flashed on the wall over the stage, and included depictions of homes, living conditions, workers, and the canal as a work in progress. The actors wore period costumes coordinated by Jean Rahner.

Director/ Playwright Deborah B. Dickey has created a play that is a unique and lasting memory of a time in our history which has affected the lives of people throughout the world.

A Classic Theatre Inc. was founded by Jean Rahner, who with Anne Kraft, also co-founded Limelight Theatre. A Classic Theatre Inc. is committed to bringing interesting theatre to St. Augustine and its many visitors. Next up is “A Tea with Zora and Marjorie,” during February 18 – 21, 25, 2016 and “Sweet Emmaline: The Musical Journey of Debbie McDade,” by Deborah B. Dickey, which will be on stage during May 8 – 12, 2016.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.

october, 2021

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