UW News

October 14, 2010

Life of Florence James — once of the UW — dramatized in ‘McCarthy and the Old Woman’

When Rita Deverell was a 26-year-old actress, she met someone she thought of as “a harmless elderly woman.” It was 1971, and Deverell had just been hired to be part of a school tour for the Globe Theatre in Regina, Saskatchewan. The elderly woman was sitting in the back of the rehearsal hall complaining that she couldn’t hear the actors.

Now, nearly 40 years later, Deverell’s play about that elderly woman, Florence James, will be produced in the Jones Playhouse Oct. 20 and 22, with a private showing on Oct. 21. What happened between 1971 and 2010? Well, that’s the stuff of the play, which she calls McCarthy and the Old Woman.

Florence James lived in Seattle from the 1920s until 1951, when she emigrated to Saskatchewan. She taught for a time in the UW School of Drama, but her main career, along with her husband Burton, was as director of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, which was housed in the current Jones Theatre. The Jameses lost their theater after they were accused of being Communists by Washington State Rep. Albert Canwell, who in 1948 led a state version of the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings.

Deverell learned all this when she was asked by the artistic directors of the Globe Theatre to interview James. After her stint at the Globe, she had become a broadcaster and had recording equipment for doing freelance work.

“I told them I would do the interview, without really knowing what Florence’s life history was,” Deverell said. “As she started to tell me the story, some if it seemed so unbelievable that I felt I had to check it out, to assure myself that it was even true.”

Her conversations with James continued over many years, until James died in 1988. Deverell made a research trip to Seattle in the mid-1980s, where she looked at James’ papers, housed in Special Collections, and talked to a number of people associated with James and her theater.

What she learned was that James and her husband came to Seattle in the 1920s and taught at the Cornish School of the Arts. But they left that school in a flap over censorship and founded their own theater, the Seattle Repertory Playhouse (no relation to the current Seattle Repertory Theatre). That theater endured through the 1930s and 1940s, until the Canwell Committee accused the Jameses of using their theater as a front for Communist Party recruiting. They refused to answer questions at the hearing and were prosecuted for contempt of the state Legislature. As a result, they lost their subscription base and had to give up their theater. Burton James died shortly thereafter, and Florence emigrated to Canada, where she worked first at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts and then for the government of Saskatchewan as a drama consultant. That’s why she was in the Globe Theatre where Deverell was an actress.

“As I talked to Florence over the years, there was just this amazement at the contributions this woman had made and the life she had led,” Deverell said. “I developed a high level of respect for her.”

At the heart of Deverell’s admiration was the Jameses’ involvement with the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s, when they sponsored a “Negro unit” that performed plays in their theater. The project was the government’s effort to put theater artists back to work during the Depression, and Negro units were created to ensure that black artists would have an equal opportunity to perform. That the Jameses would want to do this meant a lot to Deverell, who is black.

“What cemented me to hanging on to the story was the Negro Repertory Company because I fully recognized, being a black actor, what an astonishing thing this was for them [the Jameses] to have done,” Deverell said. “If nothing else, this so grabbed my attention that I said I have to keep finding out who this person is.”

Deverell might have written her play much sooner, had she not become one of the founders of a national TV network in Canada and spent many years buried in the work of keeping it afloat. She did manage to write a book about James, found and lost a publisher and put the book aside. Finally, in 2005, when she was able to return to her own work, she created a one-woman show about James, which she performed in various venues 22 times.

Deverell said she was worried that audience members wouldn’t know anything about the Cold War period and thus wouldn’t understand the play’s message, but that isn’t how it turned out. “When youngish people came up to me after the show, they were under the impression that I had written it because of the repression of the era that they were living in, which had never occurred to me,” Deverell said. “I was not thinking ‘I’m writing this play so I can sock it to right wingers after the year 2000.’ The message that I put there had to do with the bravery of this woman in the face of nonprogressive action. It would appear that the message people take away is, I too am supposed to fight for what I believe.”

The show to be seen in Seattle is a new, two-character version of the drama with Seattle actress Lori Larsen as James and drama student Monique Robinson playing Deverell. The action of the play is basically Deverell interviewing James and finding out her story, with both actors playing other characters at times. Deverell says it is all factual, although some characters have been amalgamated and time is sometimes collapsed. The play will be directed by Professor of Drama Mark Jenkins, who has his own history with the Canwell Committee story. He wrote a play based on the committee hearings, All Powers Necessary and Convenient, that was produced at the UW in 1998. Larsen played James in that play as well.

The present production came about after a friend of Deverell’s who lives in Seattle told Jenkins about Deverell’s play, and he indicated his interest. “I knew that Florence had a whole other life in Canada after she left here, but I didn’t know much about it,” Jenkins said. “I thought it was interesting that she’d had such an impact up there and I liked the idea of bringing that story back here.”

Then Floyd Jones, the donor who provided the funding for the renovation of what is now called the Jones Playhouse, stepped forward to finance the production. The Women’s Center is celebrating the reopening of Cunningham Hall with an invited audience at the Oct. 21 performance.

Deverell plans to come to town this weekend and will attend rehearsals and the performances.

“It means an enormous amount to me that this play is happening on the very stage that was taken from Florence James 60 years ago,” Deverell said. “In my mind it’s more than a mere theatrical production. Florence’s grandchildren and their partners and their children will all be in the audience, and the grandchildren — who are now in their 60s — lived as children and young adults with the work of their grandparents never being recognized. They lived under a cloud. So this for them this is an amazing event.”

Tickets for the performances Oct. 20 and 22 are $10 and are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 3901 University Way NE, 206-543-4880.