Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre, and Escape from McCarthyism
by Florence Bean James with Jean Freeman
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Kris Brandhagen
Fists Upon a Star is the memoir of a determined theatre director, Florence Bean James. It also chronicles the history of her theatre, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. The book begins with the opening of the Playhouse, establishing a frank and journalistic voice. James establishes a sense of foreboding through the use of elegant foreshadowing right from the beginning. The reader already knows from the cover of the book that the Great Depression and McCarthyism would enter into the narrative at some point.
She increases the suspense by backtracking to her upbringing and education. James decides to follow her teacher’s footsteps and pursue a post secondary education in Boston–quite a thing for a woman born in 1892 in Pocatello, Idaho. It was at Emerson College where she met her husband Burton James. Since they became such a dynamic duo, always working together, it is also difficult to separate her husband from her memoir, for the most part it is a memoir of them and their work.
Surprisingly, the James’ started the Playhouse with their two final pay cheques from their latest instructor positions. Their long term goals for the theatre included “a children’s play series, a one-act play contest, dance programs, opera intime, productions of plays by local authors, a state-wide play festival, and tours of successful productions. Eventually, most of this program came to fruition.” It is also important to recall that this was in Seattle, one of the last American frontiers, in 1928. These chapters would make an excellent guide for someone studying the history and business of theatrical production.
The Playhouse weathered temporary venues through borrowed funds until a new building was secured. “No one was on the payroll except the stage technicians, the office manager, and the janitor. The rest of us had ‘day jobs,’ or made enough to live on as best we could.” The many different age groups and communities of Seattle were involved with the plays. During the life of the theatre, the James’s had to deal with a bank moratorium in Seattle 1933, the Great Depression, renegotiated tenancy 1934, and the University of Washington becoming a powerful enemy, Works Progress administration (WPA). Despite all that, the Playhouse persists for over twenty seasons through McCarthyist trials and Great Depression tribulations.
Parts of this book directly concern the innovative beginnings of the Saskatchewan Arts Board (SAB), the first of its kind in Canada to provide public funding for the arts. During her time with SAB, James received word that Sue and Ken Kramer were looking to create a touring theatre of plays for children. After many refusals from other agencies, James offered them a vehicle and some space in her own office, as well as her guidance. This project eventually became the Globe Theatre in Regina. I myself volunteered and then worked at the Globe for many seasons. It was a joy and a revelation to learn how it got its beginnings. I found this book to be a deeply satisfying read. I would have loved to meet Florence James. I would highly recommend this book to those who would like to read about a passionate woman who, despite all of the challenges, gave tremendously to the quality of theatre in North America.
THIS BOOK IS AVAILABLE AT YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE OR FROM WWW.SKBOOKS.COM