The next time you drive south to the Santa Fe Opera or a fl ying saucer rendezvous in Roswell, you might get off the interstate 12 miles north of Trinidad and have a look at the Ludlow historical memorial. It’s easy to miss; I had missed it for decades. And once you actually find it, there’s not a lot there—at least at fi rst glance. Ludlow sits in dry grassland on a rise at the base of the coal hills, looking out to the brown eastern prairie. The memorial itself has only a few features. There’s a substantial granite monument commissioned by the United Mine Workers in 1916 featuring a mining family posed against a tall pillar. The miner stands, looking resolutely into the distance. His wife sits leaning next to him, holding a small child. The monument is made in the generic and lifeless heroic style typical of its period. Just a few feet away is the death pit. It’s been walled with concrete, and you can open the iron doors and walk down the steps and stand in the small cellar where a dozen women and children suffocated and died. The memorial is fenced around, and behind the chain link fence there are some uninviting picnic tables. Several standing panels with photographs and texts give you the story of the strike and massacre.
Ludlow is not crowded — you might very well have the place to yourself. It’s been a drive-by site for decades. The bleak monument only reinforces the sense that Ludlow is a forgotten chapter of history, receding further into the past, well down the road to oblivion. You will likely be as happy to leave Ludlow as you would a thrift shop in Walsenburg.
And yet Ludlow stays in the mind, so haunted and so forlorn. It’s not only the memorial that has been neglected, it is what it commemorates. Ludlow wasn’t simply a place where bad things happened. It was, on April 20th, 1914, the site of the most violent episode in the Colorado coal wars, which in turn was part of the deadliest strike in the history of the United States. The issues it raised are all very much with us. The disparity of wealth between workers and owners is at least as great now, though it was very great then. The miners were striking for an eight hour day, the right to collective bargaining, and a very modest raise increase. The mines were owned by John D. Rockefeller, the wealthiest man in the history of the United States.
Unionization is as contentious now as it was then, even if fewer people are being killed because of it. The realities of class divisions in our country are everywhere evident—in our schools, our neighborhoods, our cultures. Though the southern Colorado coal fields have been largely abandoned, debates about exploiting fossil fuels and mineral resources are even more hotly contested than ever. So Ludlow is a kind of paradox: at once the epicenter of a most significant episode in Colorado social history, and at the same time an event that seems to have been steadily erased from our collective consciousness.
If at first sight Ludlow seems simply dismal and empty, further viewings will give you a different picture. Drive back into the hills and you will come across the remains of more mining camps and settlements like Berwind and Hastings. They look now like the ruins of an Italian hill town. Dig deeper into Ludlow’s history and you fi nd a seething vortex of contested narratives. Was it a massacre, a battle, or both? Who was to blame? Who won, who lost? Were the company owners villains or benevolent patriarchs? Was the union a force for betterment or for enforced rebellion? These are questions to be asked, and questions not easily answered.
THEATREWORKS has made a point of creating theatre based on our own regional history. It’s part of our mission to connect ourselves and our community to where we live, to the ground on which we stand. We devised a play about Sayid Qutb’s transformative visit to Colorado in 1948, where he learned to hate America, returning to Egypt to become the prophet, founding father, and martyr of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. We wrote a play about the astonishing Nikola Tesla, who fired up some electricity and blacked out the power supply of our town at the turn of the century. It seemed to me, learning about Ludlow and aware of this year’s 100th anniversary, that this was an inevitable subject for creating another new work at THEATREWORKS. It’s complex, it’s relevant, it’s vividly dramatic. Ludlow, especially in its centenary year, was an opportunity not to be missed.
There was only one problem. We had no real idea of what this play should be. Please, not another work of 1930’s agitprop—as worthy as these are, we’ve seen them before. Please not a PBS documentary (PBS does that so much better than we could do). Please not a piece of deadly and depressing theatre. All we knew was what we didn’t want.
So we asked Brian Freeland if Ludlow was something he might like to take on, and right away he said yes, and quite emphatically too. And so we had our man and the prospect of a new play in our theatre. Brian is the founding director of the LIDA project in Denver, a theatre devoted to creating inventive performances out of a collective ensemble of actors and designers. Their work is sometimes enigmatic, visually inventive, often surprising, and full of indelible images (I will never forget the woman’s roller skating team swirling around the audience representing the solar system — yes, the solar system, and a very fetching one too). I had the hope that LIDA’s collective process would be well suited to a play about a collective strike, and I was thrilled the project more than tickled Brian’s fancy.
And so it has come to pass that we will present LUDLOW, 1914, a performance devised and created by the LIDA Project, in our theatre beginning September, 11 2014. It will not resemble a play by Clifford Odets or a novel by Upton Sinclair. It will not look like a dismal theatrical monument. It will bear little resemblance to a Ken Burns documentary. It will be part tragedy, part vaudeville, part history. There will be music throughout. A few notable historical fi gures including our town’s founder will make brief appearances. There’s a large cast—12 adults and 6 children, all terrifi c. It will be about 90 minutes of brand new theatre, the likes of which have never been seen in these parts or anywhere else for that matter. It’s another new adventure for you at THEATREWORKS. Welcome to coal country, to the Colorado mines, to a tent colony on a desolate plain, the day before a day like no other on April 19, 1914, Easter Sunday. The strikers have made it through a long winter in their tents; they are tired, restless, itchy and speaking in tongues (27 different languages were spoken in the camps). The union is running out of money. The militia that was dispatched to keep order is stressed and unpredictable. It looks like a scenario where all hell could break loose, and I’m guessing it will.