Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater opens a new chapter with the story of Father James Cox, champion of the Depression-era jobless
By SHARON EBERSON
New chapters are being written simultaneously in the Upper Hill District, each emerging from stories with deep Pittsburgh roots.
The ongoing story belongs to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company as it turns 20 and settles into its new home, the circa-1980s addition to a 1902 building on the National Register of Historic Places.
The other chapter, available only through Sunday, March 26, is Shantytown: The Ballad of Father James Cox, currently christening the auditorium of the Madison Arts Center. The new bio-musical is based on the treasure trove that is the life and times of a fascinating Pittsburgher.
Of the many Depression Era-feats performed by Father Cox, he is probably best known as the man who fed tens of thousands of the displaced poor who took up residence in Pittsburgh’s largest shantytown, located in the Strip District.
From there, he also led an Army of the Jobless in a march on Washington, D.C. – anywhere from 25,000-50,000, depending on the source – and earned an audience with President Herbert Hoover.
As the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, Father Cox gained fame with weekly radio broadcasts. Known as the Mayor of Shantytown, or Pastor of the Poor, he also was the first priest to run for president of the United States – and, along the way, he was put on trial for conspiring to fix a lottery and federal mail fraud.
Shantytown: The Ballad of Father James Cox, with a book and lyrics by Ray Werner, is a premiere musical history lesson that would seem to be a must for Pittsburghers of any age. It’s all there and more, brimming with sincerity and healthy skepticism.
If Father Cox’s story is unfamiliar to you, as it was to me, this 90-plus-minute crash course felt a bit like cozying up to a juicy historical novel on the subject. Shantytown, the musical, has the bonus of folksy songs and emotional ballads, appropriate to the era, plus a first look at PPTC’s new digs.
It’s apropos that this production is by frequent collaborator Werner. Before the Saturday showing of Shantytown, founder and leader Mark Clayton Southers noted that August Wilson is his company’s bedrock, while Werner and his work have been its anchor.
The writer, working with composer and music director Dwayne Fulton and director Gregory Lehane, had reams of references to work with, as Father Cox was a favorite subject of Pittsburgh newspapers in the 1930s.
It makes sense, then, that Shantytown keeps the focus on its subject mostly as he is seen through the eyes of others, chief among them Stephen (Joseph McGranaghan), a cynical young reporter for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. Stephen is hungry to get out of the obituary rut and dig up dirt on this priest with a saintly reputation.
Countering the skeptic is Dominique Briggs’ stalwart Catherine, the priest’s secretary and a believer who tries to shield Father Cox from the likes of Stephen – only to have the priest welcome the newspaperman into his fold.
The cast of the play includes familiar faces for Playwrights and other stages, such as Charles E. Timbers Jr., Sam Lothard, Chris Cattell and J. Alex Noble, all shining in multiple roles. Michele Bankole (Pittsburgh Festival Opera; Prime Stage Theatre) as Emma lends her lovely soprano to a couple of standout solos.
In the title role, Michael Fuller cuts a confounding figure, speaking in parables and never offering more than this: Everything he does is for his Strip District flock. His defining song is titled Hope, which – along with food and a place to belong – is what the Mayor of Shantytown has to offer, and what makes his popularity soar.
McGranaghan gets things going with a quick intro, using period photographs and an overhead projector – remember those, baby boomers? A perfect touch, for the venue that was an elementary school. As Stephen, he embodies the old-timey ambitious newsman, a nonbeliever who is granted his assignment by Noble, as an editor who might have stepped out of a ’30s noir. In spite of himself, Stephen can’t help but admire how Father Cox has earned the loyalty of the people he serves.
The show does a good job of emphasizing that the residents of Shantytown desperately wanted to get back to work, and presents them as individuals with their own hopes and dreams. The Haircut Song, for example, sung by Lothard’s Young Blood, is a sweet-and-sour way of saying that the Depression has left skilled workers in the lurch.
Father Cox’s messages of hope were manna to these folks. Whether he was a scam artist involved in a national lottery scheme, that was more fodder for the newspapers than the concern of those he helped.
Opening Shantytown got off to a rocky start, with a weeklong delay due to continuing construction at the venue. There’s still work to be done, both on the site and in the development of a musical that’s already got a lot going for it: a fascinating subject revisited as a family-friendly entertainment. For anyone living in those times, in this area, Father Cox loomed large as a champion of the poor and as a man with a plan that, we are told, became part of FDR’s New Deal. That alone earns the bright spotlight being shined in a new work, produced by a company celebrating two decades of uplifting Pittsburgh writers and the artists who bring their work to life.
Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s upcoming performances of Shantytown: The Ballad of Father James Cox are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, March 22-24; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26. At Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Upper Hill District (enter to the right of the front of the building, past the PPTC posters).