The Haymarket tragedy holds a special place in the hearts of many Forest Parkers. That’s why four of us went to see Haymarket: A New Folk Musical, which is being staged by the Underscore Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago. The 12-member cast is multi-talented. They play an array of instruments. They sing and dance and deliver stirring speeches. 

Wearing period costumes and playing down-home instruments like the washboard, the cast evokes the spirit of the times with their folk songs. Director Nick Thornton said, “We focus on the characters as people,” Nick said. “We can identify with them because every generation has its own struggles.”

The struggle at the time of Haymarket was for the 8-hour work day. The opening scenes show the group of anarchists, led by Albert Parsons, celebrating after they organized a peaceful pro-labor demonstration. They are mostly young idealists and their fervor can be felt as they sing about their movement. There is a shadow of violence, though, when Louis Lingg sings about “Lady Dynamite.”

Lingg was the youngest of the group and the most hot-headed. “We humanized Lingg,” Nick said, “and developed his outsider status.” The ultimate insider is Lucy Parsons who provides the emotional core of the play. She is a revolutionary Earth mother, who longs for a more active role with the anarchists. 

Another key character is August Spies. He uses his newspaper to spread the movement’s message. Spies is not much of a speaker but his printed words are powerful. It was partly his idea to print the notorious leaflet that called on workers to arm themselves for the Haymarket gathering.

The meeting was to protest police violence, which had caused the deaths of several strikers at the McCormick Reaper plant. Albert Parsons was determined to use only non-violent forms of protest, but his wife took a more militant stance. 

The Haymarket meeting started out peacefully. As soon as police arrived, though, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into their ranks. Lingg dismissed it as the act of an amateur. But the explosion shook the nation and led to a crackdown on the anarchists. The second half of the musical portrays how the state took revenge against the movement’s leaders, many of whom were not present at the time of the bombing.

The cast gives heart-wrenching performances exploring how they suffered under the authorities. Their trial is staged like the farce it became. After being sentenced to death, the defendants were permitted to give speeches. The formerly tongue-tied Spies delivers a marathon speech, captured in the song, “Keep on Talking, August Spies.”

As for the execution of Spies and his comrades, “Staging a hanging on stage was a challenge,” Nick said. They came up with an ingenious way of showing it. Ingenuity is on display throughout the show, as actors use their instruments as props. Finally, the executed are laid to rest in Forest Park. Lucy Parsons reports that the procession grew as they made their way to the cemetery.

The musical is heart-breaking at the end but shows that Lucy had lost none of her fire. At the conclusion, a cast member made an emotional appeal to the audience to spread the word about Haymarket. 

“They love each other and they love performing the play,” Nick said. Their run was just extended until Sept. 16. There are even plans for a production of “Haymarket” in London. “It’s still topical, unfortunately,” Nick said. All the more reason for us, who live near the hallowed ground of the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument, to go see it. 

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.