Brooklyn playwright delves into lives of mushroom farm workers
By J. Chambless
The cast of 'Mushroom' reads a draft of the play on Oct. 19 at La Communidad Hispana. The author, Eisa Davis, is at center. (Photo by John Chambless)
By John Chambless
The intertwined lives of those who
labor in the region's mushroom houses are coming to the stage as
Brooklyn-based playwright/actress Eisa Davis writes “Mushroom.”
In October, Davis and a cast of professional actors sat in a meeting room at La Communidad Hispana in Kennett Square, reading the latest version of the play for nurses and staff members of the facility, as well as representatives of Kennett Friends Meeting. The aim of the private performance was to hear from the people who help mushroom workers every day, to get their reactions to the characters and the plot as it is written and rewritten in light of fast-moving changes in immigration policy. There is no date yet for the production to premiere.
Davis was invited by People's Light to come to Chester County as part of New Play Frontiers, a program that brings writers from across the country to learn about the region, inspiring works that focus on local issues, but which also resonate on a national scale. “Mushroom” could not be more timely, and Davis prefaced the script reading on Friday by saying the new version incorporated changes she made the night before.
The process has been going on since 2013, when Davis began researching the mushroom industry and the people who work in it. She has toured mushroom growing facilities and spoken with the families who are the backbone of the multi-million-dollar business. There was a sharing of the play at the theater in Malvern in 2015, and since then, there has been a much increased urgency in the issues raised by the work.
“Mushroom” is told with flashes of humor, but always tempered by the hard reality of life in the mushroom houses and the political firefight over documentation of workers.
Davis, a versatile actress, singer and playwright, handed out the excerpts from “Mushroom” to the large cast, saying, “Every time I tell people that I'm writing a piece about people who are picking mushrooms in Kennett Square, people are like, 'What?'” she said, laughing. “This sharing of excerpts from the play is more of an introduction to the characters. It's so crucial for us to be here and hear your responses. This whole process has been really meaningful over the past five years. Every time I come back to this project, I'm just struck with the power and beauty of all the people in the story that I've been able to become acquainted with, and then hopefully to reflect, in a fictionalized way.”
The plot spotlights the personal lives of workers, but centers on a young woman who worked with her mother in the mushroom house, but is attending school and struggling to become a nurse. Living in the midst of the health problems affecting mushroom workers, she sees a need to connect the workers to reliable health care. Among the many local references is a recommendation from one of the characters that an ill worker “should go see LCH” – La Communidad Hispana – for help. The nurses and administrators listening to the reading laughed at the line.
There is a mention of St. Rocco Catholic Church as a religious base for the community. “There are 60 or 70 mushroom farms around Kennett,” one of the characters says.
Scenes in “Mushroom” may possibly be performed alternately in Spanish and English, Davis explained. When Spanish is being spoken, there could be English supertitles projected above the stage. When English is spoken, supertitles could translate into Spanish. The entire community is represented in the varying viewpoints in the play – from Tyler, the young man who is reluctantly left at the helm of a mushroom facility, to a picker who has turned to drug dealing on the side to make ends meet. There's a budding romance, harsh reality and a simmering undercurrent of resentment that the workers dare not express.
At one point, the play focuses on the aftermath of an immigration raid. Tyler complains about the seizure of some of his vital agricultural workers, saying that ICE “had been leaving us alone. They know the deal.”
The central character, we learn, is undocumented, although she has successfully negotiated her way through nursing classes. “I am undocumented. But I will care for you,” she says firmly at one point.
During a powerful speech, a character recites a list of questions that resonate. Among them: “Is America full of itself? Is America choking on itself? Is America cancelled? … Who is America?”
During a break in the reading, as well as after the hour-long presentation, the LCH nurses and administrator agreed that “Mushroom” sounds like it is taken from their daily lives. “We care for those in the mushroom industry, and you're talking about the reality of our lives,” one nurse said. “The things you wrote about are really happening.”
Marcie Bramucci, the director of community investment at People's Light, said that the process of workshopping productions in the community is a different way of working. “The New Play Festival residencies include sharings and community meetings, in addition to deep-level research, so we have these community touchstones,” she said. “For 'Mushroom,' this past August, we visited multiple mushroom farms and spoke with workers and owners, spent time at the Garage, and had lunch with the staff at LCH. We're opening partnerships with key stakeholders for the piece simultaneous to the development of the play. It's about finding out what resonates with these stakeholders, as their engagement absolutely informs the evolution of the play.”
More information about People's Light
is available at www.peopleslight.org.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.