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

April 23, 1989|ZAN DUBIN

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."

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