March 1, 2013

Controversial Maine mural gets a second act

Looking past the gubernatorial controversy, Deering High School's new play explores the history of the people in the painting.

By Bob Keyes
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Discussion surrounding Maine's most controversial painting won't go away.

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From left to right: Lindsey Chapman, Liz Yeaton, Kerry Sullivan, Rachel Doering and Brittany Burke portray victims in the Triangle Shirtwaste Factory fire during rehearsal for their one act play "Tribute" at Deering High School on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. The play is based on the controversial Maine labor mural.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Deering High School students act out a scene depicting women working at the South Portland Shipyard during rehearsal of their one act play "Tribute". From left to right: Lillian Ham, Brittany Burke, Nancy Umba, Tori Grey and sitting is Natalie Veilleux on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

This weekend, students from Deering High School will present an original, one-act play inspired by the mural of Maine's labor history that made national news when Gov. Paul LePage ordered it removed from the Department of Labor's headquarters two years ago.

"Tribute: The Maine Labor Mural Play" brings to life the characters in Judy Taylor's 11-panel narrative painting, offering snippets of history about Rosie the Riveter; Frances Perkins, the first U.S. labor secretary; child laborers; workers who were affected by a divisive paper mill strike in Jay in the 1980s; and others.

But the play isn't about the mural's removal and the ensuing controversy, which went all the way to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals. Rather, it's about the people depicted in the painting, and is meant to honor generations of Maine workers, said the play's author and director, Kathleen Harris, an English teacher at Deering who is the drama club's adviser.

"It's a tribute to the people who worked in the mills and the people in Jay who lost their jobs and the people who have made the sacrifice and done things right," Harris said. "And it's a tribute to Judy Taylor."

Taylor painted the mural in 2008 after responding to a call for proposals for a public art project for the Department of Labor. The piece hung in the office building in Augusta until early 2011, when newly elected Gov. LePage deemed it one-sided in favor of labor and ordered its removal.

The governor's action prompted protests and a federal court case that was resolved in November when the appeals court affirmed an earlier ruling that LePage was within his rights to remove the mural because it constituted "government speech."

The mural now hangs, relatively controversy-free, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

Harris wrote "Tribute" because she felt a need to do something to respond to the removal of the mural. She had seen it at the Labor Department, and was distraught when she learned that it had been taken down "and held captive."

She emailed Taylor to ask permission to write a script to dramatize the figures who populate the mural.

"I just thought it would work as a really interesting play, to tell the story about the characters on the mural," said Harris. "I assured her this would not be political in nature. I would focus solely on the history behind the painting."

Taylor offered her consent and enthusiasm.

"I was fully supportive of it," said Taylor, who lives in Tremont and plans to attend one of the performances this weekend. "I thought it was a great idea, because it provided a really appropriate educational component.

"I think the panels are theatrical in nature. They represent figures, and almost life-size figures. Those figures come forward in the mural, so translating that action to stage makes sense to me," she said.

Like the painting, "Tribute" is set in cities and towns across Maine, including South Portland, Biddeford and Lewiston. It will be the school's entry in the Maine Drama Festival, an annual competition that will start this year during the weekend of March 8-9.

This weekend's performances at Deering will give the students a chance to perform in front of an audience before the competition. The play has a cast of about 20 students and a tech crew about half that size.

Following the rules of the Maine Drama Festival, Taylor limited her play to 30 minutes. It has 11 fast-paced scenes, one for each panel in the mural.

Harris wrote the play during Christmas break, and rehearsals began in January. She has been writing and rewriting, right up to the final rehearsal this week.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Kathleen Harris, the drama teacher at Deering High School, on the set of "Tribute" a one act play about the Maine labor mural Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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The drama department at Deering High School rehearsing a scene in "Tribute" on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013. The play is based on the Maine labor mural.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer:

click image to enlarge

Rachel Doering and Natalie Veilleux portray factory workers during rehearsal at Deering High School for the oce-act play "Tribute" on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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