Do good works overcome evil, in the end?
This is the ultimate question posed by “Which Side Are You On: The Florence Reece Story,” an original play that will have its world premiere at Pellissippi State Community College April 15-17 and 22-24.
The play is written by Pellissippi State’s Writer-in-Residence Edward Francisco. It is a fictional retelling of the life of Florence Reece, an American social activist, poet and folksong writer. The daughter and wife of coal miners, she penned the song “Which Side Are You On?” which became a social justice anthem after Pete Seeger recorded the tune in 1940.
“Florence Reece began writing this song when she was just 12 years old,” Francisco said. “She finished it when she was 31, after hiding under a bed with her seven children to avoid the bullets fired by hired gun thugs working for the mining company. She tore a calendar page off the wall and wrote the lyrics.”
That year was 1931, the beginning of the Harlan County War, a decade-long battle between coal miners and union organizers on one side and the coal companies, gun thugs and law enforcement officials on the other. The war included a series of strikes, skirmishes, bombings, executions and the occupation of Harlan County by both state and federal troops. Reece’s husband, Sam, a union organizer, died of black lung in 1978. Reece died in Knoxville in 1986.
The final scene of the play imagines what may have been some of the final words shared between Sam and Florence, among them: Do good works truly matter?
Because so little information exists about Reece’s life apart from her contributions during the Harlan County War, Francisco conflated the fictional retelling of Reece’s life with experiences from his own grandmother, the daughter of a coal miner herself.
“I researched ferociously, everything from journals written by coal miners to historical news coverage of the Harlan County War,” Francisco said. The play took nine months to complete. “For nine months, I just bled on paper.”
Francisco is author of “Death, Child and Love,” “The Alchemy of Words” and “Only the Word Gives Us Being,” among other works. This is his third play, after “Fallout Shelter” and “Schrodinger’s Cat’s Meow.”
Tickets to “Which Side Are You On: The Florence Reece Story” are available at www.pstcc.edu/tickets at costs of $12 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Show times are 7:30 p.m. April 15, 16, 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. April 17 and 24. All showings are in the Clayton Performing Arts Center, 10915 Hardin Valley Road.
The play is part of The Arts at Pellissippi State and the Common Academic Experience, which this year is based upon the book “The United States of Appalachia” by Jeff Biggers. In addition, the play is sponsored by an Arts Builds Communities grant administered by the Tennessee Arts Commission.
For more information, visit www.pstcc.edu/arts or call 865-694-6400. To request accommodations for a disability at this event, contact the executive director of Equity and Compliance at 865-539-7401 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Download this press release: Francisco Florence Reece