Award-winning actor Rylance intertwines the Bard and the Battle of Homestead
Historians have viewed the 1892 strike at the Carnegie Steel Homestead steel mill, with its bloody clash between workers and Pinkerton guards, in many lights.
None seems to have found it “a story worthy of Shakespeare,” until Academy Award-winning British actor Mark Rylance learned of it while in Pittsburgh performing in the Bard's “Twelfth Night.”
The story stuck with Rylance, who will return in “An Evening With Mark Rylance and Friends: Shakespeare and the Battle of Homestead” at 7:30 p.m. July 6 in the Carnegie Library Music Hall of Homestead.
“I came to Pittsburgh in 2003 looking for a new play worthy of Shakespeare's Globe Theater,” says Rylance, who formerly was artistic director at the storied theater. “I discovered a story worthy of this globe (planet Earth) we hope to continue living on. It has obsessed me ever since.”
Rylance and co-writer Peter Reder have developed a multi-part play about the battle, which is being presented as part of a 125th anniversary commemoration of the strike and related events. The evening also will include some of Rylance's favorite scenes from Shakespeare.
Among local actors participating is Wali Jamal, known for his work with Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company.
Jamal says he was connected with Rylance by his friends Lynne Squilla and Charles McCollester of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, which is organizing the event.
“Mr. Rylance called me from his home in London ... he asked if I wouldn't mind portraying Horatio to his Hamlet,” Jamal says. “I immediately said, ‘I'm your man!'
“I sit here in contemplation of doing scenes from Hamlet with the man who won a Tony award for his portrayal of the Dark Dane,” he says. “It is a frighteningly great feeling.”
Other anniversary events include September performances of “The Battle of Homestead,” an original work by Pittsburgh playwright Mark Clayton Southers.
“The more we hear about it, the wilder it sounds,” McCollester says of the July 6 program. “Who knows what he's going to do, but Mark shares our view of the historical importance of the Battle of Homestead. It should be very interesting.”
“This was a major event in labor-management history, along with United States history, and its lessons should never be forgotten or lost,” says August Carlino, president/CEO of Rivers of Steel Heritage Corp. “Too often, as industrial communities change because of economic change, we tend to lose the important elements our culture and heritage. Homestead is a part of this larger industrial story for our region.
“Look at the change in technology in the workplace in the 21st century with the possibility of automation in transportation and other industries, and one can draw similar parallels to what was happening in the steel industry with advances in technology and its effect on workers in the 1890s.
“The industry is always going to adapt and change, and that is a good thing. But what often is overlooked is the lasting socioeconomic impact that change has on workers and community,” Carlino says. “The displacement of thousands of workers in the steel industry in the 1890s could be replicated in the future, but this time with the displacement of millions of workers.
“Rylance's interest in Homestead, our labor and industrial history, and the work we all are doing to commemorate this heritage will help draw more attention to our efforts, and help us in our mission to keep this heritage alive as Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania changes to a new industrial economy.”
Squilla says it's quite a coup to have an acclaimed actor like Rylance involved in a local cause.
“People don't necessarily know his name, but when they see him, they recognize his face,” she says.
Rylance won an Oscar as best supporting actor in 2015 for “Bridge of Spies,” with Tom Hanks. He's been seen on PBS as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall.” He'll next appear in the film “Dunkirk,” scheduled for a July 21 release.
Funding for the “Evening With Mark Rylance” and other anniversary events also is being provided by The Waterfront, Rivers of Steel Heritage Area and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.