Mayday & Mary

I. May 5, 1971

Just over a month shy of my 20th birthday, I got busted on the Capitol steps along with about 1,200 other people. It was the third day of the Mayday demonstrations against the war in Indochina, in which I’d decided not to get involved because I thought the strategy — to block key commuting routes during rush hour by sitting down in them — was flaky, not to mention testosterone-crazed and counterproductive.

For me, as part of the D.C. antiwar movement, Mayday was a logistical question even more than a political one. Tens of thousands of people were going to be pouring into the city. They needed places to crash, cheap or free food, and local information. We knew how to organize that, and we did. On Monday, May 3, more than 7,000 people were arrested on the streets of Our Nation’s Capital. Many were doing nothing more political than going to work; a few, I heard, were there to demonstrate in support of the war. Stand with two other people on a street corner and you might get busted for illegal assembly. The streets, and before long the Georgetown University campus, reeked of tear gas.

In short, before long it didn’t matter whether you supported the Mayday Tribe’s tactics. What mattered was the official overreaction. Early Wednesday morning, May 5, we heard a reliable rumor that several members of Congress were going to address demonstrators at the Capitol. A friend and I took a break from housing and feeding demonstrators and headed downtown to check it out.

Thanks to Google, I just found this in my old Bloggery: from “Normal” (July 29, 2008). I added the representatives’ first names but that’s it.

Neither of us intended to get arrested. Not only were we in the middle of finals, we were involved in feeding and housing demonstrators on campus. The couple thousand or so people who rallied at the Capitol were angry but orderly. Four congressmen — Ron Dellums, Bella Abzug, Charles Rangel, and Parren Mitchell, bless ’em all — came out to address us. Then, for reasons known only to their leaders, the police decided that it was no longer lawful (a variety of normal) to sit on the Capitol steps, even though we were there at the invitation of the congressmen and were listening to them speak. In a very few, fast-flowing minutes my idea of what was normal, expected, and acceptable underwent a sea-change. I crossed the line that separated lawful from unlawful; not only that, I grabbed my friend’s hand and pulled him along with me. By that point what I did wasn’t extraordinary at all; it was the normal, expected, and acceptable thing to do.

When we got out of jail, it was close to midnight on May 7, which happened to be my friend’s birthday. In the days that followed, my French professor refused to let me take the final because I didn’t have shoes on; I flunked the course with an A– average. Then a bunch of us occupied the university president’s office because he’d invited the cops on campus to expel the demonstrators housed there and many of their belongings had gone missing. The president expelled us outright but commuted this to disciplinary probation when someone reminded him that expulsion could be appealed.

That fall I decided I’d had it with Georgetown, and shortly thereafter the University of Pennsylvania accepted me as a transfer student, even though I was on both academic and disciplinary probation at the time.

II. Happy birthday, Mary

Yeah, “pint-sized dynamo” is a cliché, but how else to describe the late Mary Payne (1932-1996)? She could barely see over the dashboard of whatever car she was driving — in the years I knew her, it was usually a red VW Rabbit — but she was a force. Determined, passionate, infuriating, manipulative as hell, and wise.

Today is her birthday.

Mary, who spent summers here growing up, moved here year-round in the late 1960s. In 1968 she founded Island Theatre Workshop (ITW). ITW’s first program was the Children’s Theatre, but it quickly expanded to include a theater program for teenagers and eventually a community theater for everyone who wanted to participate. She was a one-woman press gang for the dramatic arts: many people didn’t know they were dying to act, stage-manage, paint sets, or whatever till Mary shanghaied them off the streets.

I moved to the island in mid-1985, met Mary that November, and before 1986 was well under way, I’d been duly shanghaied — by this stocky little whirlwind who turned out to be the only other lesbian feminist pagan on Martha’s Vineyard. Mary didn’t just draft me into the theater (after the initial panic, I was a willing conscript), she pulled me into her solar system, where a dozen or so people — most with some theater connection — were already orbiting. Single new arrivals don’t last long on Martha’s Vineyard if they don’t become part of some family-like support network. Would I have stuck around if Mary hadn’t drawn me into hers? Probably not.

In those very early years Mary pointed me toward various odd jobs that helped me support myself. Occasionally she hired me herself, though she was chronically short of cash; when she was really broke, I’d drag her down to the Vineyard Gazette office to help collate the paper on Friday mornings. One of those gigs turned into a poem, “The Lapsed Archivist Attends a Housecleaning.”  The you in the poem is Mary, and of course I’m the lapsed archivist. Mary and her partner, Nancy Luedeman (1920–2010), were the only Vineyarders I knew who had any inkling of the world I had come from, who recognized the same poets, writers, and musicians that I did. No wonder I felt so at home in their (usually chaotic) house.

By 1988 my employment situation had stabilized somewhat: I was chambermaiding at the Lambert’s Cove Inn and proofreading for the Martha’s Vineyard Times. Before long, I was also reviewing theater, of which there was a lot in those days. I’d plenty of experience reviewing books, but reviewing theater on Martha’s Vineyard was different. A book you can read, reread, mark up, and read again; a theatrical production flows by you and all you have at the end are your notes, your memories, and maybe a copy of the script. I’d also worked with many of the people whose work I was reviewing, and I could run into any of them on Main Street or at the post office.

Not to mention — the unspoken rule of reviewing on Martha’s Vineyard was that thou shalt not say anything negative about anyone, ever. It took me a while to catch on to this, and after I did I broke the rule consciously instead of unconsciously. Some theater people liked it. Others didn’t. Mary was one of the ones who didn’t. She saw reviewers as part of a production’s PR staff. I thought a review ought to give newspaper readers an idea of whether a show was worth plunking down $10 or $15 for, and recognize worthy performances and tech work when they appeared — as they often did.

Well, to put it politely, our ways diverged as a result. After I left the Times in October 1993, I reinvolved myself in theater, as an actor and playwright as well as a stage manager — but this time at the Vineyard Playhouse, then under Eileen Wilson’s capable leadership. Mary and I were on cordial terms again by the time she died so suddenly in October 1996: we barely had time to digest her cancer diagnosis than she was gone. I still miss her.

This poem was inspired by one of my early stage-managing jobs for Mary. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever written:
“The Assistant Stage Manager Addresses Her Broom After a Performance of Macbeth

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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6 Responses to Mayday & Mary

  1. Hal Davis says:

    “I prowl backstage,
    alert for things and people out of place.”

    You’re right. It’s beautiful.

    Like

  2. David says:

    I was born in DC and raised in Falls Church VA. During May Day I was camped out in West Potomac Park for about 3 days. I was 17 years old.That last morning we were awoke buy bull horn blaring that we had to leave. I climbed out of my tent and there were at least three full size black buses with no markings with hundreds of men all dressed in black with black helmets with dark face shields where you couldn’t see their faces.They all had black clubs that must of been close to 4′ long.They were standing in rows on top of the buses and all around them. They lobed a couple of tear gas canister then came through there swinging those clubs like the were cutting wheat with a scythe.

    People were actually picking up the tear gas canisters and throwing them back. Those things were real hot.

    Like

    • The CDU (Civil Disturbance Unit)! O. Roy Chalk’s D.C. Transit buses were used to haul demonstrators to jail — I was held at the Coliseum. My friend and I were so pissed at this that when we were released from the courthouse at some ungodly hour we walked all the way back to Georgetown (about 40 blocks) rather than pay money for the bus. We also stopped for White Tower burgers on the way . . .

      Like

  3. susan robinson says:

    I like all this–it gets back then right.

    Like

  4. Sara Crafts says:

    … Wow — good blog and great poem, Susanna … I wonder, often, what Mary would have made of all the time between 1996 and now

    Like

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