Fists Upon A Star

3 April 2014

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 Keith Foster
$34.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-260-1

“Speak up!” This was Florence James’s admonition to aspiring actors. It was something she often did herself, speaking up on behalf of the deprived and downtrodden.

Fists Upon A Star is Florence’s autobiography, assisted by her former student and co-worker, Jean Freeman. The title comes from a poem by Stephen Vincent Benét. The book includes an index and 28 black and white photos of productions that Florence directed.

Florence details the excitement and perils of live theatre. Once, dressed in a new gown – she always bought a new gown for opening night – she was waiting in the wings for the curtain to rise when the theatre caught fire.

At its core, this is a story of love between Florence and her husband Burton, and especially the love they shared with live theatre. They were a dynamic duo acting in tandem, perfectly complementing each other. Together, they formed their own company, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse. They also made innovations that were ahead of their time, including the Negro Repertory Theatre in the 1930s, long before civil rights became an issue.

When Florence and Burton lost their playhouse after being viciously persecuted in a Communist witch-hunt in the 1950s, Tommy Douglas invited them to work in the newly formed Saskatchewan Arts Board, the first of its kind in North America. They helped establish numerous community theatre groups, including Regina’s Globe Theatre, founded by Ken and Sue Kramer, and the Dominion Drama Festival.

A list of Florence’s acquaintances reads like a Who’s Who of the theatre world. Many of the actors she directed – like Bruno Gerussi, Shirley Douglas, and Jimmy Cagney – went on to stellar careers.

Florence insisted on quality theatrical productions, despite controversy, censorship, and persecution. Her legacy is that she spoke up, loud and clear and true.


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