by Michael Wheeler
As the artistic leaders of The Worker’s Theatre movement in Canada during The Great Depression, Dorothy Livesay (Dee) and Eugenia Watts (Jim), upon whom Tara Beagan’s new play Jesus Chrysler is based, grew up as good friends and were some of Toronto’s original radical organizers. Based out of U of T’s Hart House Theatre, the two were part of a group that staged agitprop plays that traveled throughout South-Western Ontario in Jim’s car, which they called The Jesus Chrysler.
These performances were sometimes done for a handful of interested onlookers and sometimes performed for thousands: When they performed in solidarity with mostly immigrant women cannery workers on strike in St. Catharines they were run out of town by the police. When they performed during the Stratford furniture strike at The Brooks Steam Motor plant they did so for an audience of 3,500, or twice the number that would pack a sold-out Stratford Festival Theatre today.
Eventually these artists went on to stage Eight Men Speak, widely viewed by cultural historians as a key event that motivated the release of Communist leader Tim Buck and his colleagues from the Kingston Penitentiary and signalled the end of the use of the draconian law Section 98, which could be used to jail anyone the state deemed “seditious”. Later in the 1930s, they became inspired by NYC’s Group Theatre and the works of Clifford Odets. Founding a new theatre group called Theatre of Action, they presented the Canadian premiere of Waiting for Lefty and a number of anti-fascist works.
By 1937, Jim had left for Spain where a civil war raged and she hosted a radio show, wrote articles for a progressive newspaper and drove an ambulance. Dee went on to become a major poet after the war, winning two Governor General awards and eventually becoming an officer of The Order of Canada.
Jesus Chrysler explores the complex relationship between these women and focuses on an imagined episode in and around the founding of the Theatre of Action.