On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned deadly when somebody threw a bomb at the police officers assembled to disperse the crowd. The resulting Haymarket Square Riot led to the deaths of several people, as well as a railroading of justice that punished activists and speakers at the rally without any evidence directly connecting them to the outbreak of violence.
Trouble Puppet Theater’s new production, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” retells that story with a contemporary eye that relates it to current events and the present-day fight for social justice and equality. To do so, the company employs a variety of theatrical techniques, from direct address to projections, live music and, of course, puppetry.
“The Bomb in Haymarket Square” is the brainchild of Trouble Puppet founder Connor Hopkins, who also wrote, directed and stars in the show, alongside four other actors/puppeteers — Rob Jacques, Laura Ray, Gricelda Silva and Heath Thompson — and two musicians, Justin Sherburn (who also serves as a delightful musical warm-up act) and Bryan Crowell.
The show tells the story of several of the activists who were held responsible for the bombing, both in the time leading up to the riot and in the days of judicial injustice that followed. Represented by small, intricate yet wholly effective puppets, we get a brief glimpse into the personalities and philosophies of each man, grounded within a larger context of labor unrest and immigrant persecution.
As a piece of agitprop, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” can be very effective at times. Ironically, it achieves its peak political impact when the text allows the story and the characters to take over in the second half. The first part of the show is dedicated more to revealing the philosophical underpinnings of each activists’ radical labor beliefs, featuring some of their most impassioned arguments. Though these speeches are clearly important to the political project of the show — tying in the history of radical labor in the U.S. with the fight against fascism, corporate overreach, police brutality and a biased justice system in the country today — they lack the dramatic force to be found in the more character-driven scenes of the show’s second half.
Unapologetically political, “The Bomb in Haymarket Square” features some solid performances, beautiful puppetry and a powerful message that speaks to our times through the voice of history.