A Shirtwaist Tale

Story of the strike of 30,000 young women in Lower East Side NYC in 1909

Once in a while, everything goes right…The short version of this review is “everyone should drop everything at go see it”…a great deal of fun…easy way to get a real look at how we got to unions an women’s rights.

Betsy Hutton, Berkeley Daily Planet


A return to the classic elements of theatre at its best:  a realistic story line, universal themes…emotional, tuneful music.  In spite of my many years of directing, my naiveté and innocence were given back…

–Slobodan Dan Paich, President,  Artship Foundation

MAX and MORRIS The Naches Machers,” comics;  a kind of Greek Chorus.
ZLATA ZINNZER Boss of shirtwaist assembly shop
ARON ROSENFELD Zlata’s brother, runs sewing machine
SADIE SALTZMAN 19, works in Zlata’s workshop and third member of the “The Naches Machers
DVORAH GLATSTEIN also  works for Zlata, and is also 19
ROSE SCHNEIDERMAN dedicated labor organizer
YITZOCK YAMPOLSKY owner of Yampolsky’s Café
BUBBE BROCHE YAMPOLSKY Yitzock’s grandmother; cook for Yampolsky’s
CLANCY and O’BRIEN Irish cops
PEARL Jewish prostitute
HYMAN POLANSKY Inside contractor for Triangle Waist factory
ALVA BELMONT richest woman in NYC; suffragist
Full Scenes: The Zinnzer tenement apartment
Yampolsky’s Café
Partial Scenes: The entrance to Triangle Waist Manufacturing Company (i.e., a door)
A cell in “The Tombs” prison  (i.e., a bench and pail)
A spotlit mini-stage (i.e., a spotlight on stage in front of curtain)
A desk in the Women’s Trade Unions League
A newsstand

This is the last scene from Act I.  The strikers have been through a lot of marching in cold weather and an arrest.  The group has decided to talk a day off and share an American Thanksgiving.

then ALL: [Singing] Amen!  Amen!  Amen!  Amen!

[Bubbe enters with turkey.]
BUBBE: Time to fill up good, everybody.  For walking in cold weather the picket lines.

[Group gathers at table.]

So Yitzock, it’s time for your made-in-America prayer, and then we will bring in the rest of the food.

YITZOCK: For a prayer I am the wrong one to ask.  You should do it, the oldest.  Besides, you know what they say, “If prayer did any good, they would pay people to do it.”
BUBBE: In some places, they do pay people.
ROSE: Wait, wait, wait.  Here is an American idea for Thanksgiving I would do if I could get home today for dinner in my family.  Everybody says one thing they’re thankful for, then we say “amen”.  How would that be?

[General assent]

I’ll go first, so you can get the idea.  I am really, really thankful that I get to work with smart and funny and determined people like all of you.  Okay, say, “amen”.

ALL: Amen.

[Rose gestures to Bubbe, who is next to her.]

BUBBE: Mine is easy.  I am so thankful that just when it looked like I would be living all alone in Kishineer with all my family gone, my wonderful grandson sent me a ticket for America and here I am cooking and talking all day like one big party!
ALL: Amen!

[Max is next to Bubbe, so the group looks at him.]

MAX: I am really thankful that I am the funny one in The Naches Machers.
MORRIS: Yeah, well I am really thankful that I am one in The Naches Machers that deals with reality.
MAX: Yeah, well I am really thankful that–
BUBBE: Amen!
ALL: Amen.
DVORAH: I’m thankful for my feet, which came here all by themselves
ALL: Amen, amen.
YITZOCK: I’m thankful that all the other parts of Dvorah came along with her feet.
ALL: Amen, amen!
SADIE: I’m thankful for the strike.
ALL: The strike?
SADIE: Sure.  We’ve been outside in the middle of the day, to see the sunshine and even the snow and we’ve invented a new show and we’ve met some other girls and we’re going to Mrs. Belmont’s fancy tea.  And best of all, when it’s all over, we’ll have free time every single day!

In a sense, A SHIRTWAIST TALE could be thought of as a story of what some of the people in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF experienced once they migrated to America. Since the two young women are the center of the story, it shows how their lives and their view of their possibilities broadened to include education and choices. Instead of just, “Whom am I allowed to marry?” their questions become “How can I learn English so I can get a different job?” and “How can we force these manufacturers to give us better working conditions?”. Questions that didn’t even exist in Kishineer. If you are working in a college, this would be a wonderful play for all those young women in your drama program. You could have a chorus of them on the strike line and in Yampolsky’s Café, and the play would be more realistic than previous community theatre versions could afford.

I got pretty fascinated with the Lower East Side of 1909 and the history of New York at that time. Two of the characters in A SHIRTWAIST TALE are based on real people. Rose Schneiderman was in fact one of the principal organizers of the strike and the ILGWU. She moved up in labor organizing, eventually becoming a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and head of the National Labor Relations Board. Alva Belmont really was the richest woman in New York, really did a lot to fund the strike, (including teas for her rich friends) and later, to fund the suffrage movement. (She paid for the Washington headquarters.)

The other thing that I got fascinated with was the Yiddish language. I ended up studying it for seven years and reading Scholom Aleikem in the original—with a lot of help from my dictionary. Finally I decided that if I wanted to write anything else, I had to stop spending my evenings with my nose in Yiddish! And I really did write a lot of plays in the ensuing years.