With Catherine Venable Moore, music by Laurelyn Dossett, Van Dyke Performance Space, Greensboro Cultural Center, Friday, 7 p.m.
Whatever the means — and often by whatever means — a fundamental ambition of oppressors is to limit the imaginations of the oppressed so that it becomes difficult to envision existence without them, let alone mount an opposition.
As 28-year-old Ella May toils for poverty wages over the course of six 12-hour night shifts a week to feed her four young children, though, union leaflets begin circulating through the perpetually grimy and scarred hands of American Mill No. 2 workers in Gastonia, North Carolina, and hope kindles. Ella May decides not just to join the union, but to become an organizer whose efforts would be met with resistance on multiple fronts and bloodshed.
The Last Ballad is a compassionate narrative telling of an actual textile-mill strike in 1929, led by actual labor organizer and singer Ella May Wiggins, who is better known today as a composer of poignant ballads — American folk musician and activist Pete Seeger later covered her work. Bestselling author Wiley Cash intertwines many voices in his third novel, including that of Ella May’s daughter Lilly as an elderly woman, as she tells her nephew of his grandmother’s principled defiance. Cash juxtaposes Ella May’s perspective with that of Hampton Haywood, an African-American organizer and railroad worker radicalized by socialists and communists in the North who returns to the South to bring more black workers into the burgeoning labor movement; their unified efforts and dialogue with black Gaston County residents illuminate the frustrating racial and regional dynamics of labor organizing in the American south in the early 20th Century. At once intimate and universal, Cash’s work of suspenseful historical fiction honors its central character outright, and humanizes all of the workers who risked their lives to forge a more just future during that wave of Southern progressivism. Importantly, he reminds readers that there is a future.
When she is murdered by gunshot Ella May’s eyes are open, and the sky is blue.
Find the full 2019 GSO Bound schedule here.