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Bay Area native brings the Richmond Shipyards to the stage

on October 16, 2009

The iconic picture of the muscular “Rosie the Riveter” has survived the decades since WWII, making its way into popular culture and art. But most people know little about the actual origins of the “Rosies” in Richmond.

Award-winning playwright Marcus Gardley is trying to change that.

The West Oakland native penned “This World in a Woman’s Hands,” which chronicles the story of the female workers in the historic Richmond Shipyards. The stage production, put on by the Shotgun Players, is on an extended run through Oct. 18 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. It opened in early September during a special presentation at a community center in Richmond itself.

Gardley’s inspiration for the play was his grandmother, who moved from Louisiana to Richmond during the 1940s seeking a better life and better wages as a ‘Rosie.’ Growing up, Gardley, 31, noticed that many of his friends in the Bay Area also had grandparents who had worked in the shipyards.

The Bay Area's own Marcus Gardley brings the history of the Richmond Shipyards to the stage in his newest play, "This World in a Woman's Hands."

The Bay Area's own Marcus Gardley brings the history of the Richmond Shipyards to the stage in his newest play, "This World in a Woman's Hands."

“[Our grandparents’] story is still here, but no one really talks about it,” said Gardley, who now lives on the East Coast as an assistant professor of African-American theater and playwriting at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “I’ve always wanted to tell that story and also do research on the history of the community.”

The play explores the relationships and friendships, struggles and triumphs of Richmond’s female shipyard workers. It also brings to light that ‘Rosie’ not only represented middle-class white women, but women of all ethnic backgrounds. The Shipyard was celebrated for its high efficiency and production levels during the war. But it had more than its share of workplace issues: Dangerous work conditions. Racism in the form of pay inequity and job assignments. Husbands at war, fighting overseas.

Pair these complexities with an a capella chorus of jazzy skats, underscored by a lone strong string bass and voila — “This World” is set sail.

It took Gardley, a Yale School of Drama alumnus and before that, San Francisco State, three years of writing, researching and collaborating with music director, Molly Holm, before he brought the community’s half-forgotten past to the stage. Before the play’s debut at the Ashby Stage, both Gardley and the Shotgun Players said it was important to do the first performances where it all began — in Richmond. They gave three free performances in the heart of the Iron Triangle, at the Nevin Community Center over Labor Day weekend.

“I hope the audience will walk away with a sense of pride about their community and that they learn something about the history of this period and these women,” said Gardley.

This is Gardley’s second collaboration with the Shotgun Players. The first collaboration occurred in 2006 with Love is a Dream House in Lorin, which chronicled the history of a South Berkeley neighborhood. He said all of his plays are based on historical events, usually ones that are not widely known. Gardley’s next project will deal with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, he said.

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