Taken from Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body, the title Fists upon a Star refers to the tenacity and forbearance of indefatigable theatre producers Florence Bean James and husband Burton James. Originally completed in 1975, this riveting memoir took 38 years to find a publisher. Assisted by her close friend Jean Freeman, James traces momentous personal events and provides first-hand accounts of her and her husband’s involvement in the development of American and Canadian culture, illuminating a largely unknown history with telling details and fascinating stories.
Quickly tiring of the 1930s New York theatre scene, the Jameses relocated to the West Coast, where they founded the populist Seattle Repertory Playhouse, modelled on the principles of community engagement, theatrical excellence, and cultural diversity. The upheavals they experienced were daunting: lack of professional casts and crew, desperate financial straits, and institutional jealousy. Ironically, it was not these challenges that led to the demise of their theatre, but indictments by the postwar Canwell Committee, Washington State’s version of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Canada was their refuge. The Saskatchewan Arts Board hired the dynamic couple to spread arts and culture throughout the province. However, Burton James never recovered from their exile and died, they say, of a broken heart. Thankfully, Florence Bean James continued the couple’s work, and is credited with being one of a select few responsible for the development of professional theatre in Canada.
The memoir form is often vulnerable to a deluge of personal details that hold little interest to the reader, but in this case, the focus, on a professional legacy that has had a major impact on both sides of the border, is fresh and authentic. More detail on the Red Scare inquisition would have been welcome, although the author’s clear intention was to concentrate on the building of community through theatre. As such, the book is an inspiration to anyone struggling to make live theatre relevant in an increasingly virtual world.