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‘Rust’ – a play about plant closings

September 30, 2011

Rust‘ opened last night in Grand Rapids.  It’s an Actor’s Theater premiere of Austin Bunn’s attempt, as a Jersey-born, Yale -educated professor, to come to an understanding of the culture, now passing, of making things, and what happens to the people who do the making when the music of the gears stops, and with it, their world.

The play focuses primarily on the General Motors Stamping Plant in Wyoming (suburban Grand Rapids), Michigan, which employed 1,600 people, 1,500 of them hourly, prior to the December, 2008 closure announcement.  A second closing, of Rowe International, America’s last juke box manufacturer, which shut down nearby at the same time, provides material for the play’s storyline, as well.

The play, done without intermission, follows the lives of several workers, some fictionalized but others based very closely on actual people, as they learn of the closing, digest its’ actuality, and come to terms with what it means for them.  Some, the ‘GM Gypsies,’ low in seniority, move from plant to plant, because they cannot find work outside of the auto industry that will support their families at anything near the middle-class standard of living they’ve come to know.  Others retire, commute to nearby plants (Flint, mentioned several times, is almost three hours away), or strike out on their own, opening a storefront business, et cetera.

Touching memories, such as the display of pictures of a billboard that a three-generation GM family paid for thanking GM for 73 years of employment, abound throughout the performance.  Prof. Bunn appears as himself, as well, using his own experiences as an outsider sent into this world of machinery to write this story, as he tries to understand the people who inhabit it – their pride, their loyalty, their sense of being and place, – and what happens when change, like rust, eats away at what they’ve always known.

This writer was honored to have been asked to interview with Prof. Bunn to provide background information on things like Henry Ford’s $5.00 day, the formation of the UAW, and the Auto Pact of 1965 that began the exodus of manufacturing jobs from America’s heartland as the ‘frostbelt’ became known as the ‘rustbelt.’  Along the way, introductions were made to some of the workers whose stories appear, individually and in composite, on-stage.

If you’re in the Grand Rapids area while the play is running, it’s worth seeing.  If you have never worked in a plant or have never been downsized, this will be a window into a world you may not know.  If you have experienced these things (as I have, when I worked in a steel warehouse that was a small tributary feeding into the rivers of production emerging from the Detroit auto plants), you may see a little bit of yourself on-stage, reliving what you’ve already lived through.

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