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King Coal

By Upton Sinclair, who always takes the side of the underdog and shows people how hard and unfair life was for the lower classes in his time (i.e. early 20th century), King Coal is about a well-to-do college student, who leans to the left politically. His older brother and friends tell him that all the news and complaints of poor treatment of coal minors is hog wash. He decides to spend his summer as a miner.

He takes on the clothing of a working man and goes to North Valley where he gets work in a mine. He has no idea how much worse things were than he imagined. He makes friends with the workers, lives amongst them and sympathizes with them. He gets the same bad treatment. He faces the same problems – high rents in the mining housing, bad food at the canteen, exorbitant prices at the general store. When he helps the men organize and request, not a union, but someone to check that the coal loads are weighed right, he lands in jail. The judge is in bed with the mine owners. Upon release he’s followed and when a reporter prints his story . . . well, on and on it goes, injustice upon injustice.

The story is compelling and Sinclair creates likable characters a few that middle class and progressive wealthy folk would take to. It’s still a relevant story and should be read in history classes. If I taught history, I’d have some students read this, others read The Jungle and others read Oil! and then compare notes.

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The Jungle

Friday I saw a marvelous play adapted from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Staged by the Oracle Theater, a cast of about a dozen actors brought the meat packing industry and Chicago slums to life. While The Jungle’s most known for exposing the terrors of the food industry, the book and the play both reveal how immigrants were swindled through bad real estate brokers and others trying to make a quick buck.

How on earth would you depict the slaughter of cows in a tiny theater? Or a big one for that matter. The Oracle did this with amazing creativity using large rolls of butcher paper, ink and woodblocks to imprint the cows before the audience. The paper also served as a screen to project the waves of Lake Michigan or a canvas for painting the bars of a prison.

The show offers much more than ingenious stagecraft. Every performer gave a compelling performance which featured lots of singing.

As if a good play isn’t enough, the price is outstanding. The play was free. The Oracle Theater models its finance on public radio where subscribers donate what they can on a monthly basis. If you can’t pay, that’s fine as The Oracle wants everyone to be able to see a good play.

I do hope they succeed and are around for years to come.

Tickets are available at publicaccesstheatre.org. Street parking is readily available.

Promised Land

Promised_Land_(2012)

While certainly agitpop, I enjoyed Promised Land starring Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, and Hal Halbrooke. It’s the story of a newly promoted natural gas employee whose job is to get family farmers to sign over their land rights. Then Global Oil will begin fracking, which can go terribly wrong, contaminating the land and water for generations. Of course, Damon’s character leaves that bit out of his sales pitch. He and McDormand visit a small town in Pennsylvania promising these good folks that they can make loads of cash and threatening them that this is their last and only chance at a good life for their kids.

Damon’s character, Steve Butler, comes from a small town in Iowa that’s hit economic hard times since a Catapillar plant left town, probably for China or some place with cheap, cheap labor. Steve keeps assuring himself that he’s a good guy and his conscience starts to flare when Krasinski’s environmental advocate comes to town. The two compete and time and again Steve’s luck and charm run out.

The story has some twists at the end and reminded me of a modern version of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! – which we all should read. It’s a palatable way to learn about fracking and corporate practice. There’s a B story with a love triangle, but that subplot isn’t as strong as it could be.

All in all, I’d give this a thumbs up.

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