Chronicling the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy



Originally it was called the Asch Building. Later it became the Brown Building. Whatever the name, it is still there, at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street, directly across from the NYU Bookstore. The 9th floor is now an NYU chemistry lab.

“When I started this thing,” says playwright Ellen K. Anderson, “there was only one plaque on that building. Now there are three, including one from the ILGWU.”

This thing is “Shirtwaist,” a “musical ghost story” by Ms. Anderson which weaves together in past and present imagination the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that took the lives of 146 people. They were locked in the 9th floor sweatshop high up in that building — most of them young immigrant women. Scores leapt to their death in less than 20 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, March 15, 1911.

The firemen’s ladders only reached to the 7th floor.

Though much good came out of the nightmare — outraged reform, protective legislation, safety rules, EXIT signs, fire extinguishers, unionized vigor — New York City bears the scars of those 146 deaths forever. “Fourteen engagement rings lay on the gutted 8th and 9th floors . . . Rosary beads among the ashes . . . Funerals instead of birthday parties.”

Ardently brought to life by a youth-stamped cast of seven under the direction of Heather Ondersma, who sparked the project, “Shirtwaist” has two remaining performances in its Fringe Festival run at Teatro La Tea, 107 Suffolk Street: Wednesday, Aug. 20, at 5:15 p.m., and this Friday, Aug. 22, at 10 p.m. Playwright Anderson and director Ondersma are applying to Sundance for a chance to further develop the work.

The players are Hanna Moon as an instructive present-day New York City Fire Museum firewoman, Javier Cobo as an NYU biologist from Brazil who goes for her in a big way . . . even while his head is set spinning by the highly articulate fleshed-out ghosts of five of the unidentified dead — actors Berette Macauley, Janet Casamento, Mark Pergola, Michaela Goldhaber, and Wendi Bergamini (whose pure, strong voice does full justice to the music by Ryan Brown and others).

Ellen Anderson has never been inside the Brown Building, “though I’ve looked at it a lot from the outside,” she says. Heather Ondersma — along with all the actors, designer Scott Boyd, and stage manager Alia Rose Connor — has indeed had a look inside and at the 9th floor.

“The space is all worked into different chemistry labs now,” Ms. Ondersma reports. “It’s eerie, with the lab tables set in rows symmetrical to the building, just as those sewing tables were, with no space for any of the girls to get out.”

“Very spooky,” says playwright Anderson. “My daughter — a film student in California — said: ‘Suppose I got assigned to chemistry classes in that building? What would I do?’ “

Anderson and Ondersma first met in 1993 or ‘94 when Anderson was teaching playwriting at UCS(University of California at Santa Barbara) and Ondersma was a graduate student there.

Together they’ve done one piece — “Mud Flaps,” at the Kraine — for a Fringe Festival before this, and when one day they were jointly exploring the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street, which has a tiny theater within it, Ondersma said to Anderson: “We’ve got to write a play for that theater.”

But nothing happened.

“We let it go,” says Ms. Anderson, “and I was happy. Then, this past January, when Heather called me in California to say: ‘You know, we should do that Shirtwaist play for this year’s Fringe, I had no play. I started writing fast. In May, I came to New York with 16 bad pages. Heather said: ‘You can do this.’ She’s the one that makes it happen. I just sit in a dark room and write plays.”

One of the lines she wrote that brought this auditor up short was when one of the ghosts, a brownskin young woman from Jamaica (Berette Macauley), says to a union militant (they’re both long dead, of course): “Allow me to point out that your precious International Ladies Garment Workers Union did not allow colored girls.”

Which happens to be true, says Ellen Anderson, whose extensive research included newspapers of the era, various Websites, and an invaluable 1962 book, “The Triangle Fire,” by Leon Stein (reissued 2001 by Cornell University Press).

“In the big garment-workers’ strike of 1909” [Anderson learned] “which preceded the Triangle fire by two years, black women went in to work as scabs. So did non-Jewish women. When they [the bosses] later hired back, they hired as many non-Jewish women as they could.”

The union militant in “Shirtwaist” (Wendi Bergamini) is not only Jewish but an immigrant from Lithuania and, it wondrously turns out, the great-grandmother of the young NYU botanist from Brazil who falls in love with the only non-ghost on the premises, that spunky sexy Fire Museum firewoman who’s giving him — and us — instruction on how to survive disasters.

Ninety-two years after perishing in the Triangle fire one day short of her 15th birthday, a pretty girl named Angelina (Janet Casamento) exclaims in naãve wonder: “New York still has immigrants?”

It got a laugh from me, anyway. “I like that line too,” says the woman who directed it. “Little Angelina, dumb as a box of hammers,” says the woman who wrote it. “But she isn’t really.”

Dumb as a box of hammers?

“A regular Middle West phrase,” says Ellen Anderson. She’s not only Midwestern, she’s from Detroit, also from a good labor family.

“I knew from the age of 5,” she says, “that it was the wrong idea to cross a picket line. When my junior-high-school class took a field trip to a Ford steel mill, my grandfather waved to me from the floor. On Sunday outings my dad [tool-and-die maker Donald Anderson, who died at 45 would take us to an overpass where [management] goons had confronted strikers. That was our idea of a Sunday outing.”

Also Michigan-born, but California-raised, is Heather Ondersma, who when last interviewed in these pages had directed “A Thread in the Dark,” based on the Ariadne/Theseus legend, a production which was to have opened aboard the 94-year-old Yankee Ferry, docked at Pier 25, foot of North Moore Street, on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.

When that show finally did get open two weeks later, it played against a background of cranes removing debris from Ground Zero.

The most heart-rending few words in the whole of Anderson and Ondersma’s “Shirtwaist” are, in reference to the 911 reportage: “They called it the day ‘girls fell like rain.’ “

“We talked and talked about that when we started this project, and what we were going to do about it,” says Ellen Anderson. “And decided not to do anything directly. That was Heather’s thought, and wise advice.”

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