Struggling after the recession of the early ‘80s, the small town of Austin, Minnesota, penned a key chapter in national labor politics.
It was at the Hormel meatpacking plant, famous for producing Spam. The company imposed a 23% wage cut on its workforce in 1985. In response, about 1,500 unionized employees walked out.
National union leaders watched as the strike persisted for half a year, becoming one of the state’s longest and fiercest. Protesters rallied community members, formed blockades. About a third ended up going back to work. The National Guard came in to protect new, non-union employees, neighbors shouted at one another, police released tear gas on a riot, and places of togetherness—church, school—prickled with tension.
Kids of the strike would be in their 40s and 50s today. For a new play at Children’s Theatre Company, Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins tracked down more than 25 of them. He scoured Austin—and the country—to essentially ask, “What was that like for you back then, as a young person?”
The result, Spamtown, USA, marks the first telling of this well-documented story from the perspective of children. Making its world debut February 16 and running through April 5, it follows five kids—composites of Dawkins’ interviews—as they cope with their hometown’s new, overwhelming atmosphere of spite.
“What’s it like to suddenly have the people you go to church with not want to talk to you anymore?” poses artistic director Peter Brosius, who commissioned the project in 2017.
Brosius had already seen American Dream, the harrowing, Oscar-winning 1990 documentary about the strike, by the time Children’s Theatre brought him to Minneapolis back in 1997. A lifelong American-history buff, he had read up on Hormel, too. It struck him that such a huge national event should have roots a couple hours south.
“I’m trying to think of what the a-ha moment was that said this was the right moment,” he says, speaking ahead of rehearsals. The play’s mid-’80s foreshadowing of today’s polar politics was more convenient than intentional, he notes. “It may have been because so much of the work that we’ve been doing, in commissions, is about young people in critical moments.”
Over the course of two hours, Spamtown tracks a clash of obsessions: For the adults, it’s the strike; for the kids, it’s their set of dreamy, forward-looking priorities. Paperboy and aspiring astronaut Scott Olsen (played by Marcelo Mena) wants to go to space camp. He needs to save up, but when his dad crosses the picket line, folks on Scott’s route unsubscribe. They don’t want the son of a union traitor delivering their newspapers anymore.
Meanwhile, his protest-assembling mom is too busy for daughter Jude (played by Isabella Spiess). Jude’s quest is as consuming as Scott’s: to transcend her modest home life via tennis stardom.
On the other side of the schism, the daughter of a Hormel executive, Amy (played by Arden Michalec), stands up to her father’s disparaging remarks about the strikers—people her family has known for years.
Meant to inspire kids to ask questions, the show includes “harsh language, bullying, and some instances of physical violence” (for ages 9 and up). This puts to the test what Brosius describes, in a kind of mantra, as “the resiliency, the power, and the strength of young people.”
Heroines of two recent, seemingly lighter works—Matilda (from Matilda) and Cindy Lou Who (from How the Grinch Stole Christmas)—worked toward similar goals. They, too, were “change agents,” Brosius says, who could “transform a problematized community.”
In Spamtown, that problematized community was, of course, real. As was the rage. “People told their stories as if it was yesterday,” Brosius says, of Dawkins’ interviews. “So, we are cognizant that this is an emotionally complex time. And that, for some, it is still a very fraught and very painful time.” He notes that post-play conversations with some of the interviewees are in discussion.
“Part of our hope is that, the more we can understand the reality of young people, it may help inform us how we make our choices.”
Painful, Hilarious, Real
In the ‘80s, unions were already on the decline. Today, they claim about 10% of the U.S. workforce. It’s unfamiliar territory for most adults, let alone kids. Onstage, the trick is to explain without over-explaining. “What you don’t want is for this to be filled with exposition about the intricacies of trade-union negotiations or labor-management relations,” Brosius says.
Children’s Theatre workshopped the first act of Spamtown at the 2018 “New Voices/New Visions” festival, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in D.C. Brosius and Dawkins had recently staged a bizarrely similar project: a world-premiere adaptation of The Sneetches. In this Dr. Seuss fable, a town is literally divided: A red line separates creatures who have stars on their bellies from creatures who don’t. “I loved what [Dawkins] brought to it, in terms of taking a situation and finding the humanity, the relationships, the families,” Brosius says.
The two read everything written about the strike, Brosius says, including multiple books, and they knew they couldn’t cover it totally. “There’s no way, unless you’re doing a Ken Burns 11-hour special.” At the workshop, they learned to ground it, again, in limited POVs: of three families, five kids.
At one point, the youngest tussles with the very notion of a strike, mixing up ideas and failing to fully understand. “And she is tender, and sweet, and hilarious,” Brosius says.
Throughout, the script doesn’t take sides. Even a little exploration starts uncovering arguments: Hormel had to keep up with competitors like Oscar Mayer; employees cited dangerous working conditions as well as an earlier wage freeze. “We are not trying to say, ‘This is the right way,’ ‘This is the wrong way,’” Brosius says. The kids’ arcs fill out the show instead, upholstered with ’80s coming-of-age details.
Those textural bits hint at the wider world, which keeps on despite the strike: Costume designer Trevor Bowen combed through Austin yearbooks, resurrecting feather cuts and saddle shoes. For music, composer Victor Zupanc riffs on Twisted Sister and Pat Benatar. They’re loud pops of nostalgia in designer Christopher Heilman’s otherwise minimalistic set.
“What we’re trying to say is, ‘These are humans who are caught in a situation, who are making choices in that situation, who are doing their best in that situation, often,’” Brosius says.
At least two other world premieres under Brosius have approached politics similarly. For 2007’s The Lost Boys of Sudan, the staff visited Fargo to listen to Sudanese immigrants. (The “lost boys” of the play were based on the thousands of young men separated from their families because of the Sudanese civil war, some of whom ended up in Fargo.) Later, in 2018, I Come from Arizona used interviews of families in Chicago to tell the story of a young girl who discovers that her family is undocumented.
Like those shows, Spamtown isn’t about policies or history, unless it’s to give audiences a way in. One scene has Jude calling on her mom to stop organizing long enough to wash her tennis uniform. It’s troubling, but also funny in how it mixes familiarity and absurdity.
“Your family growing up, my family growing up—there’s moments of chaos, there’s moments of confusion, there’s moments of fights that are ridiculous,” Brosius says. “On the one hand, it’s fraught; on the other hand, it’s ridiculous; on the other hand, it’s hilarious; on the other hand, it’s painful. It’s real. It’s very real.”
Feb. 16-April 5
Children’s Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis