A stunning piece of radical theatre, Things Of Dry Hours, opened at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre last week. Set in the Southern US state of Alabama during the 1930s, the play explores race, class and the impact of the Communist Party on the lives of ordinary working people.
The play is written by leading US radical playwright Naomi Wallace. It is based on extensive research into the period – in particular, Robin Kelley’s The Hammer And The Hoe, an extraordinary history of Communism in Alabama during the Great Depression.
Communist activists were deeply rooted in struggles for the rights of black workers in the South. They organised miners, steel workers and tenant farmers to fight for higher wages and against lynching.
Naomi spoke to Socialist Worker about the play and its relevance. “I’m interested in history and the forces that make it – especially the invisible history that’s repressed, the continuity of struggles for justice,” she says.
“We can see more about today if we look into the past. That’s why I felt it was important to go back to previous struggles about race and class – and the two are always intertwined. It’s about a time when people dreamt about a radically different type of America.”
Moreover, she is concerned with how ordinary people “fought for and imagined this different world” in their everyday lives – a commitment to justice that is all too easily dismissed as naive or utopian today.
Closely allied to this is a concern to reclaim the place of the Communist Party in US history. “There’s so many myths about the Communist Party – that its members were all New York intellectuals, or that they were simply tools of the Soviet Union,” says Naomi.
“What this doesn’t see is how the Communist Party was an integral part of the struggles around race and class in the 1930s. They were not an aberration that floated in from outside. You had local parties tackling local issues with local people making decisions.”
One index of this intense engagement in working people’s lives was the development of a working class culture that blended elements from Marxism and radical Christianity. Tice, one of the main characters in Things Of Dry Hours, owns two books – the Bible and the Communist Manifesto.
“African Americans became part of the Communist Party and influenced the party just as much as the party influenced them,” says Naomi. And this reciprocal influence should be viewed as a strength, she argues.
“The Communist Party then was flexible enough to accommodate and be changed by people’s cultures. I think that any social justice movement today has to be flexible, able to absorb what communities bring to it – which is quite different from ‘selling out’.”
On a deeper level, Naomi says her writing is concerned with how specific local and historical moments link up with what she describes as a “longer term struggle” that characterises what it means to be human under capitalism.
“It’s not just about the particular struggles out there – we need to be involved in some kind of resistance to oppression in order to maintain our humanity within a brutal system.”
This idea of humanity runs counter to how the system encourages us to think about ourselves, she notes. “Consumer capitalism tries to teach us that ‘salvation lies within’, that you should go internal and develop your individuality, as opposed to finding your worth in what you have in common with others.”
Naomi, in contrast, stands for an outwards looking vision of human beings fighting back collectively – “Struggle is good for the libido!” she declares.
Interview by Anindya Bhattacharyya
The personal and the political
Things Of Dry Hours is directed by Raz Shaw. “This is the third play I’ve done with Naomi Wallace,” he told Socialist Worker. “Like all of her work, it cuts a beautiful line between the personal and political.
“It’s a piece of work that talks about what it was like to be a black Communist Party activist in the 1930s. But it also looks to the heart of those people, what made them tick and where they wanted to go.”
This “duality of the personal and political” is a gift for a director, he adds. “It’s a play with such meat, emotionally and politically, that it works on all levels. It talks about how people fight for change in a world that tries hard to close doors in their faces.”
The play opened in Manchester on Wednesday of last week and moves to London next month. Initial press responses have been positive, and Raz hopes the play will be taken up by other theatres across the country. “These things have a habit of taking a life of their own – we’ll see what happens,” he says.
Things Of Dry Hours runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24 February. Go to www.royalexchange.co.uk for details. It transfers to London’s Gate Theatre from 6 March to 31 March – go to www.gatetheatre.co.uk