PORTLAND — Discussion surrounding Maine’s most controversial painting won’t go away.
This weekend, students from Deering High School will present an original one-act play inspired by the mural of Maine’s labor history that made national news when Gov. Paul LePage ordered it removed from the Department of Labor’s headquarters two years ago.
“Tribute: The Maine Mural Play” brings to life the characters in Judy Taylor’s 11-panel narrative painting, offering snippets of history about Rosie the Riveter; Frances Perkins, the first U.S. labor secretary; child laborers; workers who were affected by a divisive paper mill strike in Jay in the 1980s; and others.
But the play isn’t about the mural’s removal and the ensuing controversy, which went all the way to the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.
Rather, it’s about the people depicted in the painting, and is meant to honor generations of Maine workers, said the play’s author and director, Kathleen Harris, an English teacher at Deering who is the drama club’s advisor.
“It’s a tribute to the people who worked in the mills and the people in Jay who lost their jobs and the people who have made the sacrifice and done things right,” Harris said. “And it’s a tribute to Judy Taylor.”
Taylor painted the mural in 2008 after responding to a call for proposals for a public art project for the Department of Labor. The piece hung in the office building in Augusta until early 2011, when the newly elected LePage deemed it one-sided in favor of labor and ordered its removal.
The governor’s action prompted protests and a federal court case that was resolved in November when the appeals court affirmed an earlier ruling that LePage was within his rights to remove the mural because it constituted “government speech.”
The mural now hangs, relatively controversy-free, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
Harris wrote “Tribute” because she felt a need to do something to respond to the removal of the mural. She had seen it hanging at the labor department and was distraught when she learned that it had been taken down “and held captive.”
She emailed Taylor to ask for permission to write a script to dramatize the figures who populate the mural.
“I just thought it would work as a really interesting play, to tell the story about the characters on the mural,” Harris said. “I assured her this would not be political in nature. I would focus solely on the history behind the painting.”
Taylor offered her consent and enthusiasm.
“I was fully supportive of it,” said Taylor, who lives in Tremont and plans to attend one of the performances this weekend.
“I thought it was a great idea, because it provided a really appropriate educational component.
“I think the panels are theatrical in nature. They represent figures, and almost life-size figures. Those figures come forward in the mural, so translating that action to stage makes sense to me,” she said.
Like the painting, “Tribute” is set in cities and towns across Maine, including South Portland, Biddeford and Lewiston. It will be the school’s entry in the Maine Drama Festival, an annual competition that will start this year during the weekend of March 8-9.
This weekend’s performances at Deering will give the students a chance to perform in front of an audience before the competition. The play has a cast of about 20 students and a technical crew about half that size.
Following the rules of the Maine Drama Festival, Taylor limited her play to 30 minutes. It has 11 fast-paced scenes, one for each panel in the mural.
Harris wrote the play during Christmas break, and rehearsals began in January. She has been writing and rewriting, right up to the final rehearsal this week.
Student actors said they appreciated the opportunity to participate in a project so rich in local and regional history.
“I learned a lot from it and am happy to be a part of it,” said Brittany Burke, a junior. “I was surprised to learn that people as young as 5 or 6 years old were forced to work in Maine.”
Said senior Nick Goater, “I had heard about the mural being taken down in Augusta, but I really didn’t know anything about it or the stories that were told in the murals. But I know about it now. It’s like a living history lesson.”
Junior Tori Grey plays Rosie the Riveter in the show and is the play’s assistant director. Like other students, she said Maine’s labor history was an unknown subject until she read Harris’s script.
“I had no idea about any of this,” Grey said. “It’s been a great learning experience for all of us. It’s such a teaching moment.”
As far as she knows, Harris said, LePage has not been invited to see the play — but she would welcome his attendance. The governor’s office did not return calls to say whether LePage would attend.