Florence of America

8 October 2019

Florence of America: A Feminist in the Age of McCarthyism
by Florence Bean James, with Jean Freeman
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$24.95 ISBN 9780889776470

Florence of America: A Feminist in the Age of McCarthyism is the autobiography of Florence Bean James and her passionate struggle against oppression to establish quality theatre in North America.

Part of The Regina Collection published by the University of Regina Press, Florence of America is a slightly condensed reprint of her earlier memoir, Fists Upon A Star. The new version has a more compact format – easy to carry in one’s pocket and handy to pull out while sitting in waiting rooms.

In her memoir, Florence recalls her exciting life. Starting out at the end of the First World War was difficult for her and her husband, Burton. The bedroom of their New York apartment was so small that once they moved the bed in, they couldn’t close the door. Their rent was three dollars a week, plus quarters for the gas meter, and included cockroaches, which stayed rent-free.

Working temporarily as a switchboard operator, Florence hid twelve dollars, her weekly salary, under some shelf paper in the kitchen cupboard. Next week, in a frenzy of housecleaning zeal, she threw out the old shelf paper, and with it, the twelve dollars.

Florence dared to tread where others dared not. Dreaming about creating live theatre with a strong heart, she organized the Seattle Repertory Playhouse and the Negro Repertory Theatre, long before civil rights became a searing issue. Like a cactus adjusting to changing conditions, their theatre had to adapt to changing circumstances.

Seattle was a union town, and Florence wanted to open the theatre to everyone. When the meat cutters’ local bought out an entire performance, a board member objected, wondering why on earth meat cutters would want to attend a show. Burton didn’t see a problem. “They won’t be bringing the entrails with them,” he said.

Florence seemed to have a penchant for producing controversial plays that the authorities wanted to censor. She also had to defend herself against accusations by Senator Joseph McCarthy that she and her theatre group had communist leanings. A highlight of Florence’s life was when she audaciously addressed the judge in her own defence at her trial. And wait till you read what the judge had to say!

After losing her theatre, Florence moved north of the border to take a position with the newly formed Saskatchewan Arts Board. There she helped organize numerous community theatre groups, including Regina’s Globe Theatre, and the Dominion Drama Festival.

Florence mentored an upcoming actress and writer, Jean Freeman, who learned her lessons well, becoming a writer in her own right. She assisted Florence in writing her autobiography. Surely a case of the student becoming a teacher.

In Florence of America‘s two appendices, Florence shares her views on acting and directing. As an actor and director, she was intimately involved in both. As a bonus, journalist Rita Shelton Deverell wrote the epilogue, praising Florence for not being afraid to stand up to oppression. Standing up made her stronger, and the theatre world better.


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