On an unheard of sunny “spring” day in February, I (rather reluctantly) left the snow melting on the streets of Minneapolis in 2020 to enter the world of Austin, Minnesota, in 1983 on the Cargill Stage of the Children’s Theatre Company for the world premiere of Spamtown, USA. While I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for, I was not disappointed.
This piece, written by Philip Dawkins and inspired by interviews with 30 people who lived in Austin in the eighties, takes a close look at the years leading up to, and following, the 1985 Hormel strike. Through the eyes of five children growing up at that time—sisters Amy (Arden Michalec) and Carol (Malia Berg), siblings Travis (Zachary Sullivan) and Jude (Isabella Spiess), and Scott (Marcelo Mena), the latter pair’s cousin—we learn about the happenings at the Hormel meat packing plant along with the dreams of each of our young characters. The parents of the children (excluding Scott’s mother) all work at the plant, and so the turmoil and uproar caused by the strike directly impacts each of the families and tensions escalate. Scott’s dad and Travis and Jude’s parents lose their jobs, while Amy, Carol, and Scott are made to feel unsafe in their homes, as people threaten and attack those opposing the strike and “scabs” (those who cross the picket line to work). Over the two hour runtime, we watch as our young characters experience personal growth and slowly discover their values through the hardships they and their families are faced with.
Spamtown, USA feels like a war story that takes place on the home front. Through excellent storytelling and the efforts of Director Will Davis, we are made brutally aware of the gravity of the situation and the suffering each character endures. After Scott's father is dubbed a “scab,” we sympathize with Scott as he bikes over a baseball filled with nails on his driveway and later guards his burnt and vandalized garage with a baseball bat. We watch as Amy and Carol deal with the fear of an unknown attacker when they get a brick thrown through the window of their house. Each person in the city is affected by the strike, but as Amy aptly points out to Travis, “we [the children] are the sacrifice.”
As the years roll by, each child must endure the harsh reality of a broken dream. Travis and Amy, our young high schoolers in love, are torn apart by their families' opposing views of their families. In addition to this loss, we also see Amy set aside her dream to go to fashion school and Travis sell his car to bail his father out of jail. Scott, who dreams of being an astronaut, watches on T.V. as the Challenger space shuttle explodes after liftoff, and Jude wins her tennis championship, only to realize no one in her family is there to celebrate her victory because they are all on the picket line.
The play was touching, deep, and thought-provoking. I was pleasantly surprised, since I assumed its Children’s Theater association would have it geared toward a much younger audience. While there were a handful of children under 10 in the audience, I would suggest this play is well-suited for ages 13 and up. The fast-paced dialogue and overlapping speech kept the audience captivated, but also made it difficult to catch everything. One of my favorite aspects of the play was a surprisingly clever running joke which occurred during several moments when adults were speaking: these lines, skillfully delivered with an emotional seamlessness from the actors, incorporated impressions of what must have truly been said, for example, “numbers, facts, work, work, dirty words!” or “blah, blah, words, adult words.” While bringing a light-heartedness to a rather heavy themed performance, it also served to reinforce the idea that we were viewing these situations from the children’s perspective.
The sound design, done by Victor Zupanc, consisted mostly of eighties music used during transitions. While this played to the timeline, it also somehow gave the impression of a sitcom montage (the random dance outbreaks only added to that and seemed to speak more to the children’s theater aspect of this show than most else in it). The costumes, designed by Trevor Bowen, spoke to the time period as well, but with a subtle grace that avoided being too overbearing.
Scenic Designer Christopher Heilman’s simple, fluid stage design brought us into different spaces quickly and kept our attention focused on the characters inhabiting those spaces. The use of shadows on the industrial strip curtain played with the ominous, unknown nature of the situation at hand, and reminded us that these children were experiencing something much larger than themselves.
After heading back to the sunny sidewalks of 2020, I could not stop thinking about the history of the strike and was keen to look up more details. Needless to say, I left with an inquisitive and impacted mind. Final thoughts? Spamtown, USA: poignant, clever, soulful, informative, or, as an adult in the play might say, "words, positive words."