“Shantytown” Premieres Mar. 11 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

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THIS SATURDAY MARCH 11, Ray Werner will celebrate two major personal firsts:  in the morning, he’ll preside as Grand Marshal for the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade; in the evening, he’ll see his latest play, Shantytown:  The Ballad of Fr. James Cox, have its world premiere at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre’s new Madison Arts Center in the Upper Hill.

Shantytown is a musical, the fifteenth play by Werner, who had a 5-play festival of his work performed in 2018 by PPT. It tells the story of Fr. James Renshaw Cox, the intrepid activist pastor of Old St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip District whose lifelong advocacy on behalf of the Pittsburgh poor sparked a 40,000-person march on Washington, DC in January, 1932, at the height of the Great Depression.

Directed by Gregory Lehane, Shantytown has a 10-show run from Mar. 11-26, with opening night Saturday Mar. 11 at 8:00 p.m. It features an eight-member cast (Michele Bankole, Dominique Briggs, Chris Cattell, Michael Fuller, Sam Lothard, Joseph McGranaghan, Alex Noble, Charles E. Timbers Jr.) with musical direction by Dwayne Fulton.

“Who was Fr. Cox?” muses Werner. “He was a champion of the poor but always an enigma. He didn’t care how many times he stepped on toes or over the line.”

(l) Fr. James Cox; (r) playwright Ray Werner (photo: Annie O’Neill)

Born in Lawrenceville in 1886, Fr. Cox worked as a cab driver and steelworker, attended St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe and was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1911. His military chaplain experience in France during World War I gave him an unforgettable closeup look at the human extremes of barbarity and grace.

After the war, he earned a master of economics degree at University of Pittsburgh. In 1923 he was appointed pastor at Old St. Patrick’s Church and immediately began aligning church activities with civic improvement.

St. Patrick’s, Pittsburgh’s oldest Catholic parish, was founded in 1808 by Irish emigrants and later consolidated into St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus Kostka parish. By the 1920s, the church and school complex filled the entire block from 17th to 18th Street along Liberty Avenue and ministered to a working-class community whose already fragile economic security was devastated following the stock market crash of 1929.

As the Great Depression took hold, America’s unemployment rate stood at nearly 30%. Thousands of homeless encampments, dubbed “Hoovervilles” or “shantytowns”, spread across the country. Working out of the parish, Cox organized a large-scale food relief program aiding Pittsburgh’s hungry and unemployed, feeding an estimated two-and-a-half million people over three years until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs took effect.

Yet, he realized more forceful action was required. In consort with other local leaders, Cox set off from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC on Jan. 5, 1932, at the head of an automobile convoy of 40,000 unemployed. The group packed the plaza in front of the U.S. Capitol, singing My Country ‘Tis of Thee and other patriotic songs as the priest and his policy team met with President Herbert Hoover to press for unemployment relief and a national public works program.

However, as he would throughout his presidency, Hoover refused to consider any direct government involvement to alleviate the economic misery; unbowed, the marchers returned to Pittsburgh having captured immense media and public attention. Cox and his supporters formed The Jobless Party and mounted a national presidential campaign promoting labor unions and government public works, bowing out of the election after Roosevelt was nominated as the Democratic Party candidate.

Until his death in 1951 at age 65, Fr. Cox continued his relief work and was revered as Pittsburgh’s “Pastor of the Poor”. He mentored a new generation of Catholic social activists, among them Fr. Charles Owen Rice, who would carry forth Cox’ progressive ideas as Pittsburgh’s labor priest through the 20th century. Cox’ funeral drew more than 10,000 mourners, with crowds filling the Strip District on a chill, blustery March day.

A Pittsburgh shantytown, Fr. Cox standing upper left

Werner says the idea for Shantytown was planted nearly two decades ago. “My good friend Dan Yates at St. Patrick-St. Stanislaus showed me the parish archives. There were stacks of clippings and publications about Fr. Cox. ‘You have to write a biography about Fr. Cox,’ he said. But I thought it would make a good play and possibly reach more people.”

By the time Werner finished a first draft in early 2020, he’d decided the musical format would be the most effective way to express the story.

The play’s musical numbers, he says, represent an eclectic blend of styles from the 1920s and ’30s spanning ragtime, vaudeville, gospel, Irish music and novelty songs. Along with music director-composer Dwayne Fulton, Werner received song contributions from other colleagues — North Carolina singer-songwriter Jerry McCarthy, Connecticut singer-songwriter Walt Woodward, Pittsburgh balladeer Mike Gallagher and Irish uilleann piper Bruce Foley with whom Werner played for several years in the Pittsburgh band Hooley.

In the spirit of its resourceful protagonist, Shantytown has allied art with action. “The Red Door on the Boulevard of the Allies is operated by the Diocese of Pittsburgh and serves the homeless,” says Werner. “It started in 1929 the same year the play begins, and after every Shantytown performance there will be an auction for gift certificates from Strip District merchants including Pennsylvania Macaroni, Papa J’s, Bar Marco, Roland’s Seafood Grill, Coangelo’s Bakery, Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, Penn Ave Fish Company, Piccolo Forno and others with all proceeds benefiting The Red Door.”

Werner believes the play is timely and connects with many of today’s real-world issues. “Almost a hundred years later, we’re still grappling with unemployment, racism, anti-Semitism, economic inequity. It’s a good story waiting to be told.”

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Shantytown:  The Ballad of Fr. James Cox, book, music and lyrics by Ray Werner; produced by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. Mar. 11-26 at at Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St., Pittsburgh PA 15219. Ticket and show information here.