Poster (above) courtesy of History Theatre; photograph of Kim Hines (below) by Amber Proccacini
History and attitude came to life on the stage of History Theatre in January 2013 with award-winning playwright Kim Hines’ story of local activist Nellie Stone Johnson. Hines’ script captured the essence of Johnson in a defining chapter of her life helping to unionize staff at the all-male, all-white Minneapolis Athletic Club in the 1930s.
Hines spoke with Johnson in 1996, while working on “Favorite Son: the Humphrey Perspectives” for History Theatre. At the time, Johnson was in her 90s, living in public housing, taking in sewing to pay the bills, still active in the community.
“What was poignant when I spoke to Nellie was that she feared no one would remember and value what she had done,” Hines said. Johnson had advised then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey on his game-changing civil-rights speech in 1948. “Nellie told him, ‘Sometimes you have to do things that are unpopular and difficult. It’s bigger than you.'”
Johnson shared stories with Hines of after-hours political conversations at Cliff’s Café, a business owned by Hines’ grandfather in north Minneapolis. Their scheduled 15-minute meeting easily turned into a two-hour conversation.
“When I spoke with other people about Nellie, some thought she was a pest, difficult. They didn’t like her process,” Hines said. “But I gotta give that woman her props. She was tenacious. She got a lot of stuff done.”
Years later, when Hines was asked to write Johnson’s story, she didn’t hesitate. “I wanted to do something that would make her proud. Her generation did more for civil rights and activism than any other, and had less to work with under more restrictions.”
Breaking color and gender barriers, Johnson’s work as a civil rights and union activist falls in line with History Theatre’s mission. “[Artistic director] Ron Peluso is interested in telling the little guy stories – in giving voice to those who stand up and speak up,” said History Theatre marketing director Rachel Flynn.
During the development and run of the play, the issue of limiting collective bargaining for public school teachers was playing out next door in Wisconsin.
“It was the same kind of fight,” Flynn said. “Much of what Nellie said and did then echoes today. It’s timely and speaks to several stories: finding your voice, labor organizing, and how and why and what happens to make a person an activist.”
Johnson’s determination in critical organizing efforts yielded benefits that improved the quality of life for many others. For Hines, a 46-year veteran in the theater business, it also presented a challenge. “I had about two hours to tell Nellie’s story,” she said. “She lived a long life and did a lot of things, so there was no way I could capture that. So I chose a small portion of her life.”
A key moment of the play comes when the character Nellie delivers a defining line: “I woke up one day an elevator operator and ended up an activist.”
“I wanted to show the genesis of how people become who they are,” Hines said. “Everyone’s always looking for the big flares, but for her, it was a series of soft tugs to pay attention, to make connections. She recognized that. She took what she learned, and she put it into practice. We see Nellie evolve into an activist, into herself, and that’s important.
“I hope that ‘Nellie’ whets people’s appetite for stories about black heros and sheros that aren’t told in an ethnocentric way,” said Hines. “It’s one that people need to hear.”
BE A CHANGEMAKER:
“Ask about the work of female playwrights, stories about women of color if you want to hear those stories,” playwright Kim Hines encouraged audience members. “Speak up – write, comment, email about what you’ve seen at theaters that stage this kind of work, to effect what we get to learn about other people and their lives.”
The Nellie Stone Johnson Scholarship Program provides assistance to racial minority union members and their families who wish to pursue an education at one of the institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.