I recently saw Wild Swan Theatre’s production of Jeff Duncan and Brian E. Buckner’s musical, Rosie the Riveter. If you don’t already know, let me tell you, Wild Swan Theatre is an Ann Arbor treasure, and one of our town’s greatest gifts to theatre lovers both young and old—in Michigan and beyond. If you’re familiar with Wild Swan, you probably already agree with me. If you’re not, do yourself a favor and become acquainted.
Rosie the Riveter is, of course, about the women who, during World War II, worked in defense plants, factories and in other formerly exclusively male work situations. The musical is specifically about the women who worked in the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, MI, making the iconic B-24 Liberator bombers.
This isn’t a review of the musical, or of Wild Swan’s production, though I could easily use up most of my store of superlatives in writing those reviews. Rather it’s about the effect the musical had on me, and why I feel it’s critical that young people—hell, all people—and most especially now—see and hear plays, songs, stories, and all forms of art that share Rosie the Riveter’s message.
Wild Swan’s Rosie began with a series of pictures projected on a screen above the stage. The pictures were of women who worked in the Willow Run plant during the war. As soon as the first picture was projected I began crying—hard.
OK, I’m no John Wayne. I’ve been known to react with visible emotion to art that evokes strong feelings in me, but for a few seconds, as I looked at that picture of a stranger, a woman I did not recognize, standing by an unfinished airplane, holding a rivet gun, I had no idea why I was crying.
And then, I knew.
In 1944, my mother, along with countless other Jews, was forced at gunpoint from her apartment in her native Budapest, crammed into a filthy, overcrowded, railroad cattle car and taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. She spent her 26th birthday, December 4, 1944, in that cattle car. I’ll spare you the details of that horrific trip, and the hell that followed. Ravensbrück, by the time she got there, was no longer a killing camp, although the gruesome and inhuman “scientific experiments” to which Nazi “doctors” subjected some of their defenseless captives, were possibly still in progress there. Blessedly, my mother didn’t experience that. But she was, along with hundreds of other women, marched every day, in bitter winter weather, in woefully inadequate clothing, to a nearby airplane factory, where she was forced to build planes for the Nazi war effort. My mother told me many times, with great pride, “Nothing I touched ever flew!” All the women did what they could to sabotage the planes.
The Nazis starved them. Whenever the women could get away with it, they stole potatoes and onions from the camp kitchens, occasionally even scrounging them from farm fields along their march route, then sneaked them into the factory in the mornings, hid them in light fixtures and cooked them as best they could during the day with the heat of the light bulbs, then ate them at night.
At the end of March, 1945, with the Red Army rapidly advancing, the Nazi guards took most of the women, using them as human shields, on a death march. The night of April 15th, my mother, her older sister, and seven other women escaped and took refuge in nearby Dresden. When the war ended my mother gradually made her way back to Budapest where, two years later, she met my father.
When the pictures of the Willow Run Rosies flashed on the screen at the start of the Wild Swan play, I didn’t only see strangers I didn’t recognize. I saw my mother.
Rosie the Riveter is expertly packed with fascinating facts and figures and many moving stories based on the true-life experiences of the original Rosies, but the overriding theme of the musical is about freedom. Freedom for the women to explore their potential outside of the existing societal confines of the period, freedom for women and families living in poverty to improve their lives and freedom for the African American women and their families to escape the demeaning and dehumanizing brutality they experienced in the Jim Crow South—and an opportunity for white men and women to get past their prejudices about African Americans by interacting with them in the plants.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need musicals like Rosie the Riveter. We need plays, musicals, songs and all other art forms that value, depict and promote the precious treasure of freedom—freedom to escape dangerous, intolerable conditions; freedom to live in peace in the home of your own choosing; freedom from misogyny, both subtle and blatant, freedom from religious persecution; from prejudice, discrimination and hatred; and freedom to protect and improve our world for our children.