Bread and Roses Production Tells Real Stories of St. Louis Workers

The Workers' Opera runs at the Gaslight Theater this weekend only

click to enlarge A man stands in the middle of a semi-circle of people in chairs as he rehearses for the play.
Courtesy Bread and Roses
Missouri's Workers' Opera: Our Stories United Will Never Be Divided will be open at the Gaslight Theater this weekend.

The audience at this weekend's Bread and Roses Missouri's Workers' Opera: Our Stories United Will Never Be Divided will see a sketch about Kias being stolen. But the plot wasn't ripped from the headlines.

Rather, it came from cast member Monica Bohlen.

It wasn't too long after their apartment building reduced security that Monica and her husband Theotis "Theo" Bohlen's Kia was stolen. But it wasn't only them. About 10 cars from their apartment's lot soon were gone.

"It was getting so bad that every night, at least three cars were being stolen off the lot," Monica Bohlen says. "Management wasn't doing anything about it."

She started a petition and circulated it to her neighbors, getting the attention of management, who soon wanted to meet with her to discuss what could be done. The process made her realize how important it was to speak up for herself and for others.

Bohlen shared that story with Delaney Piggins, the writing facilitator tasked with helping the cast craft the script for the aforementioned opera, who wrote it into the script.

"That's what I really love about Bread and Roses: They are talking about things that's going on, right here in the city, and not just talking, but reaching out and, you know, making people aware and lending a hand," Bohlen says.

Telling the often-untold stories of the region's workers is the whole point of the production. Bread and Roses — a nonprofit founded by St. Louis' legendary labor organizer Joan Suarez with a mission to support and celebrate workers and their families through arts and humanities programming — started producing operas in 2016 to create original theater "by workers, for workers."

This year's production has three showings this weekend at the Gaslight Theater (358 North Boyle Avenue, 314-380-0174, breadandrosesmo.org/event/workers-opera_event). It's directed by St. Louis' Mariah Richardson, a prolific playwright who wrote last year's Shakespeare in the Streets production The Ville: Avengeance! and is a writer and voice on the forthcoming animated PBS TV show Drawn In.

Though it's called an opera, the production is actually a series of shorts that include music, theater sketches and comedy. The cast wrote the script in a two-week period with Piggins' help. There's a parody of Family Feud, songs rewritten to be pro unions and workers' rights, and personal storytelling, such as one sketch that tells a cast members' struggles to get to work at Home Depot during July's flooding.

click to enlarge Monica Bohlen (left) and Theo Bohlen are two cast members in theWorker's Opera.
Courtesy Bread and Roses
Monica Bohlen (left) and Theo Bohlen are two cast members in theWorker's Opera.

The cast is made up entirely of volunteers, and not many have previous theater experience.

"In March, I couldn't have told you who was going to be in the cast, and now that we have these nine people, they just seem like the right nine people," says Emily Kohring, executive director of Bread and Roses. "They're just all wonderful in different ways, and they're all bringing a lot to the process."

The actors found the Workers' Opera in different ways, some by chance, others were involved with a previous Bread and Roses production or they were recruited by other cast members.

Theo Bohlen, for example, was recruited by his wife. After her car was stolen, he'd taken to driving her to practice. Then she suggested that he join.

"I've been in it for the last five weeks, and I love it," he says. "Oh, God, I love it so much. It's something new to me. So I'm very impatient because I've been working for 25 years, just physical work. So this right here is something I've been looking for, how to explain — it's not work."

He works for the Missouri Department of Transportation, and Monica Bohlen retired from education because of vertigo — she drove a school bus and then became a special educational assistant. So aspects of the process are new and somewhat difficult, memorizing lines in particular.

"I got my lines pretty much," Monica says, laughing. "But, you know, for Theo, I'm telling him his lines ... he's up there saying his lines out loud, and I have to restrain myself."

Doing the opera together has brought them closer, given them something to work on together. When Monica sees Theo — or any of their fellow actors — struggling with a line, or something else, she says she empathizes.

The experience has bonded the whole cast, and they have even met outside of official rehearsal to practice, something that the Bohlens point to as evidence of not only their unity but also the power that comes from being able to share your own stories.

The Bohlens are looking forward to doing that this weekend.

"It makes us feel like we matter," Monica says. "I hope everybody comes out."

That, Kohring says, is the point.

"I hope it raises a great discussion," she says. "I think all the best theater is theater where people talk about it on the drive home and talk about what they saw and what it meant to them and what new ideas they got."

Attend the Workers' Opera: Our Stories United Will Never Be Divided at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 23, and Saturday, September 24, or 7 p.m. on Sunday, September 25, at the Gaslight Theater. Admission is free but reservations are recommended. Visit https://bit.ly/3w6iWTD to make your reservation.

Email the author at [email protected]

About The Author

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen is managing editor for the Riverfront Times. She’s also the editor in chief of Boulevard, a literary magazine.
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