Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck on February 1, 1968. Less than two weeks later, 1,300 African-American men went on strike for fair wages, safe working conditions, and the simple recognition of their basic humanity. Few relics from the crossroads of labor and civil rights define the American condition as starkly as the printed signs reading, "I am a man."
To commemorate the strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis for the last time, the historically significant Clayborn Temple is staging three preview performances of Union, a new piece of musical theater currently being developed with a national tour in mind.
Anasa Troutman says Clayborn Temple has been on a two-year journey. Troutman's the CEO of Eloveate, a company working at the crossroads of art and community. She's shared the journey, working with a creative team to tell the story of the sanitation workers and other activists who gathered at Clayborn. "Now we're workshopping this musical in the space where it all began and inviting the community behind the scenes," she says. "And we want the community to get involved."
Union's closing night has been imagined as an interactive event involving training before the show and a talk back with cast members and Black Lives Matter activists. "We're not just telling a story of the past," Troutman says. "We want to show how this story has shaped the future we're building now in Memphis and beyond."
Of course, it's also a story of Memphis' past and Troutman thinks the show has benefitted from deep connections to the source material.
"Two of our cast members are grandchildren of sanitation workers," she says. "One's grandmother still has an original 'I am a man' sign hanging in her garage."