Fists Upon a Star
By Florence Bean James with Jean Freeman
University of Regina Press
298 pages, $34.98
Reviewed by Joy Fisher
If you like true stories about strong women, you’ll like this book. If you’re interested in live theatre, this book will engage you. If you have a vague notion that it’s important to fight injustice, this book will snap into focus your understanding of the human cost of government tyranny.
If, like me, you have a sparking interest in all three topics, this book will ignite you.
Subtitled “a memoir of love, theatre, and escape from McCarthyism,” Fists Upon a Star tells the story of Florence Bean James and her husband Burton, who founded and ran the Seattle Repertory Playhouse for 23 years, until Washington State’s House Un-American Activities Committee convicted them both of “willful refusal to answer proper and material questions.”
Ruined financially by the legal expenses incurred to fight the charges, they lost the lease on their theatre to the University of Washington. By December 30, 1950, the final curtain had descended on their last production, and, by November 13, 1951, Burton James had, according to his doctor, died “of a broken heart.”
In Seattle, the Jameses had devoted themselves to a “theatre of the people, by the people and for the people.” When Florence migrated to Canada in 1952 after being offered a job with the new Saskatchewan Arts Board by none other than Tommy Douglas, she finally found a “philosophical home.”
Norah McCullough, former executive secretary of the Arts Board, recalled a conversation she had had with then Education Minister Woodrow Lloyd. Concerned the Jameses might have been Communists, Lloyd asked about Recreation for All, the proposal Burton James had made to the State of Washington which had brought him under suspicion. McCullough had a copy and gave it to Lloyd. When he read it, he said: “Well, it sounds like the Saskatchewan Arts Board,” and she replied: “Yes, exactly.”
Already in her 60s when she moved to Canada, Florence James travelled “the length and breadth” of Saskatchewan by train in all kinds of weather conducting acting workshops and directing amateur theatrical productions in hundreds of communities. After her retirement from the Arts Board in 1968, Florence continued to work as a dramaturg with the Globe Theatre, the first professional education theatre company in Saskatchewan. In 1976, she was awarded the Diplome d’honneur by the Canadian Conference of the Arts, presented to a Canadian who has “made a sustained contribution to the cultural life of the country.”
In Canada, Florence James took up the job of finishing the book her husband had started before his untimely death. He had defiantly named it Fists Upon a Star, from a passage in Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body, about the radical abolitionist who raided Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Florence kept the title, wrote and, with author/actor Jean Freeman, rewrote the book and searched in vain for a publisher until her death in 1988 at the age of 95. Fists Upon a Star was finally published in 2013, after Canadian playwright, journalist and social activist Rita Deverell took up the cause and persuaded the Canadian Plains Research Center (now the University of Regina Press) to take a look.
Now we can all take a look. And I hope you will.
Fists Upon a Star includes a preface by Freeman, an annotated introduction by Mary Blackstone, professor emerita of the University of Regina Theatre Department, and an epilogue by Deverell.
It was a 2014 nominee for the Saskatchewan Book Awards in the categories of non-fiction, publishing, and publishing in education.
Joy Fisher graduated from UVic in 2013 with a BFA in writing. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.