Floating a Play About Shipbuilding : 'Steel-Blue Water' Gives Voice to Workers

Clyde Flowers saw it coming. Watching America's shipbuilding industry collapse around him, watching too many friends, after years of service, laid off without notice, Flowers got out before it could happen to him.

"I didn't want to sit there, being on the bubble, waiting every day to see if I was the next to go. . . . I signed up for a paralegal class. They say it's a booming career. I hear people are starting off at 30 grand a year."

These words are from Flowers' real world and from the stage production, "Steel-Blue Water: The Shipbuilders' Play." The 51-year-old former shipbuilder, who worked at Todd Pacific Shipyard in San Pedro for 12 years until a few months ago, is one of three characters (playing himself) in the docu-theater piece about life at Todd and the crisis in the shipbuilding industry. It premieres today at 2 p.m. at Shipbuilders Local 9 union hall, 340 N. Broad Ave. in Wilmington.

"Steel-Blue" was conceived and produced by Susan Franklin Tanner. As producing-artistic director of TheatreWorkers Project, she has done similar dramas based on the lives of American industrial workers who help create the plays and perform them in place of professional actors.

Tanner's first endeavor, "Lady Beth: The Steelworkers' Play" of 1986, starred six former steelworkers whose worlds crumbled when the Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon closed. After showing the piece to Todd shipbuilders in 1987--and watching them identify with it strongly--Tanner decided to embark on her current project.

A victim of foreign competition, commercial shipbuilding in the United States has declined drastically, leaving the industry dependent on Navy contracts, said Flowers, former president of his union local. The Navy is maintaining a 600-ship fleet, however, as ordered by the Reagan Administration. No new Navy contracts are being awarded and most of the country's shipyards have closed.

From a peak work force of nearly 6,000 in 1983, Todd, which filed for bankruptcy in 1987, now employs about 1,000, company officials said. Todd is finishing its last U.S. Navy frigate and doing repair work.

Suddenly stripped of their jobs and identities, few endured the transition as well as Flowers. In the play, he briefly assumes the character of a colleague who "went nuts," from the ceaseless inner void and self-doubt suffered after giving 18 years--more than half his lifetime--to shipbuilding: "Next thing you know your wife is saying, 'Hey, honey, go do this. Hey, honey, go do that.' Next thing you know you're looking at the four walls, going crazy."

"People I worked with had their hearts torn out," Flowers said in an interview. "Guys laid off with 17, 18 years. They don't have the flexibility or education I have (to forge a new career). They're extremely talented, but they can barely read."

"Thousands of workers built this country," Tanner said. "They make what we use everyday, what we drive, what we walk on. But who they are and what they feel gets lost in the shuffle, particularly when their plants or factories or shipyards close. The lives of these men are worthy of documentation, of lifting out of the hold of a ship and putting on a stage so that people can see who it was that built America."

As with "Lady Beth," two of the three men in the shipbuilders' play were among several who attended weeks of workshops led by Tanner in which they told about their lives at Todd, orally, and through poetry and prose. Playwright and director Rob Sullivan then crafted their testimonials into a script, much of which is direct quotes.

The steelworkers and shipbuilders projects differ, however. The former was more like a eulogy, the latter more like a slice of life.

Whereas Bethlehem Steel has permanently closed, Todd remains open and officials hope to contract enough repair work to stay open. And, while Flowers and cast member Ralph Moore have both recently left the yard, both were employed when production on "Steel-Blue" began last October and rehearsed this spring.

"The steelworkers play was like a memory, a funeral," Tanner said. "This is in process. The end of the story wasn't known, it still isn't, and we wanted to shed light on the present, the vitality that was still there. What has come out is a mixed bag of memories and hopes and fantasies and fears and future plans."

Pride in one's work is part of that mixed bag. Moore, who spent 13 years at Todd, Flowers, and cast member Ruben Guevara, a musician and performance artist, recently read an excerpt of the play to union officials at the shipbuilders union hall in Wilmington. The play, funded in part by the California Arts Council and the American Labor Relief Fund, is co-sponsored by the shipbuilders union.

Listening intently, some of these union officials, all veteran shipbuilders, nodded and smiled proudly, as Moore read his poem titled "Pride."

"When the job is done . . . there is a certain swelling in your guts and you want to shout for joy. . . . just before you walk away, you touch it slightly, just so slightly, as if it were a newborn baby, your very own creation."

Moore's pride was particularly hard won. Chronic disease and death from exposure to poisonous chemicals, the constant, impending threat of cancer from breathing asbestos, back injuries from years of grueling physical labor and egregious accidents are part of the play's patchwork too. In 1986, Moore was trapped below deck in a gaseous explosion that scorched 60% of his body and kept him from working for nearly two years.

"I was on fire. Clothes burning. Meat falling off my neck," says Moe, the name Moore uses to play himself in the production.

Other sights, sounds and smells of the sprawling 97-acre Todd shipyard, which has operated in Los Angeles Harbor since the mid-'40s, make up the "Steel-Blue" collage.

These days, the yard is comparatively barren, still, quiet. Abandoned machines in huge, empty warehouses gather dust. Giant overhead cranes stand immobile like steel dinosaurs. But the place once hummed and throbbed like a small metropolis at rush hour, swarming with workers from around the globe.

In percussive spurts, the men describe it all: "Banging, thumping, buzzing, cursing, crashes, hammer on steel . . . paint odors, dirty water, acid, stagnant water, foul dry dock, smelly clothes . . . Slavs, Thais, Mexicans, Poles . . . blue water . . . blue water . . . blue water."

Also distinguishing the play from Tanner's other projects is a set, to be designed by Los Angeles-based artist May Sun. Sun's vision, in her words, includes a "backdrop that suggests the blue ocean, or a large blow-up of a (ship's) blueprint," and sculptural structures made of scrap metal that may double as chairs. I always thought of it in sculptural terms because of the materials (at the yard), the rusted steel, the scrap metal, the pipes."

Sullivan, who has written four of Tanner's plays, said this script is the most poetic and non-linear, highlighting the contrasts of the shipyard.

"On one hand, it has very lyrical passages and talks a lot about the beauty of the sea," he said, "counterpointed with rough,really metallic sequences about how rotten it is to work there. The dirt, the danger, the noise."

Preserving the shipbuilders' points of view and natural speech patterns was paramount. The script is liberally peppered with profanity: "I wanted this to sound like they were sitting around talking in an office at the union hall."

The three men in "Steel-Blue" had the best feel for acting among those he has worked with, Sullivan added. That's not too surprising.

Although about 15 shipbuilders took part in Tanner's workshops, few wanted to bare their souls on stage. Therefore Guevara, who has never worked as a shipbuilder and has performed professionally since 1971, was hired to represent the yard's Latino presence. Flowers, who has just completed his first paralegal class, had done street theater for two years in the late '60s. A return to the limelight wasn't the main reason he volunteered for the project, however. It was the play's message.

"What's happened in American industry since the late '70s is one of the biggest, misunderstood and under-publicized issues. I've driven through the Rust Belt in Pittsburgh. It was once a beautiful, thriving place. Now it's like a decimated wasteland. People have lost everything. Our union once had about 400,000 workers (nationwide). Now It's down to 12,000. What happened to all those jobs, all that income? It's like the reversal of the American industrial revolution, yet it's the best-kept secret. Where's all the plays and poems and novels and paintings? Susan (Tanner) is one of the few people doing anything about it."

"Steel-Blue Water: The Shipbuilders' Play" can be seen at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at IAM District 727, a machinists union hall at 2600 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank, and for 8 p.m., May 21, at Highways performance space, 1641-51 18th St., Santa Monica. Information: (213) 221-7672.

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