Kelundra Smith’s debut play, The Wash, delves into the 1881 strike that stunned Atlanta

Kelundra Smith at the Academy Theatre

Photography by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Back in 2017, Kelundra Smith visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, to write an article for a now-defunct magazine. While in the historical galleries, she saw a section on post–Civil War Reconstruction and an exhibit that documented the Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881, an event she had never heard of despite growing up in the city. Smith finished her assignment, but the events of the strike stayed with her and ultimately led to a deep dive into the subject, with what was then a new venue for her: playwriting.

As a prolific arts and culture writer for Atlanta magazine, ArtsATL, and other publications, as well as the managing editor of American Theatre magazine, Smith had no ambition to be a playwright. She was content being a journalist and a critic. “Playwriting was not even in my purview,” she says. “But there were stories that I wanted to tell as a journalist that I just knew I wasn’t going to get an assignment to tell.”

What really solidified Smith’s interest in the event was a satirical article she read as part of her research. “It was a funny, snarky piece about how these washerwomen had left White people in Atlanta completely inept,” says Smith. “The tone was—how will these White people survive without these Black women washing their clothes? The city was smelly, there was a ball, and people were in dirty clothes trying to disguise the funk on their ball gowns. That made me laugh, and I thought there was something here.”

One evening, during a storm after a long commute home from a former job, the play’s first scene came to her. Smith sat down and wrote the first 34 pages by hand, then wrote on and off until the start of the pandemic. She staged a virtual reading with actor friends in 2020, did more fine-tuning, and was ready for the first official reading in 2022.

Two years later, The Wash is set to have its world premiere June 7 to 30 at Synchronicity Theatre, then July 10 to 28 at Hapeville’s Academy Theatre, as a coproduction of Synchronicity and Impact Theatre Atlanta. Smith’s play follows the lives of several fictional Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta, all at crossroads in their personal lives and willing to fight for higher wages.

The Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881 grew from 20 Black women to 3,000 for better pay and conditions.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

One of the largest labor actions in the post–Civil War era, the Atlanta Washerwomen Strike of 1881 began with 20 Black women, then ballooned to 3,000 women within three weeks. It means a lot to Smith that this play is being staged at a moment in our country when unions are under attack and workers who try to unionize are fighting for their rights.

“The conversation is so similar in 2024 as it was in 1881 that it is scary,” she says. “The term ‘essential workers’ is not new—the laundry women, in letters to the mayor, described themselves as essential workers, saying, ‘We provide an essential service to the sanitation of this city and we should be allowed to set our own rates.’”

Working as a laundress in 1881 was backbreaking work. “There was no electricity in most houses, especially in the South, and post–Civil War Atlanta was still a wasteland after having been burned down,” Smith says. Most homes didn’t have running water, so washerwomen had to use wells and pumping stations. The process of doing their job involved picking up the laundry from clients (by either walking there or using a streetcar); soaking the clothes in warm water; using paddles and washboards to get the dirt and stains off; hanging, drying, ironing, and folding the clothes; and then delivering them—and doing it all over again the next day.

Kelundra Smith went from writing about theater to writing for theater with the world premiere of her first play this month.

Photography by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Smith has now written five plays. One, Younger, an imagined prequel to A Raisin in the Sun, had a reading at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in 2022, but The Wash is her first to receive a full production. It’s part of a trilogy she is writing about Black triumphs in Georgia during the Reconstruction era. The Wash was a finalist for the National New Play Network 2024 National Showcase of New Plays, one of three plays by Southern playwrights on the list. After its world premiere in Atlanta and Hapeville, the play will be produced at The Black Rep in St. Louis and Perceptions Theatre in Chicago.

Smith now sees herself more as a storyteller, no matter the format she uses. “The story picks its medium,” she says. “For me, seeing this piece find its footing [onstage] is the icing on the cake. I wrote it so I could sleep at night and see it hopefully resonate with people in a positive way and inspire them to fight for their own rights. I want audiences to imagine possibilities for themselves and to know that where you are is not where you are stuck.”

The post Kelundra Smith’s debut play, The Wash, delves into the 1881 strike that stunned Atlanta appeared first on Atlanta Magazine.

The Wash is set to have its world premiere June 7 to 30 at Synchronicity Theatre, then July 10 to 28 at Hapeville’s Academy Theatre, as a coproduction of Synchronicity and Impact Theatre Atlanta. Kelundra Smith’s play follows the lives of several fictional Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta, all at crossroads in their personal lives and willing to fight for higher wages.
The post Kelundra Smith’s debut play, The Wash, delves into the 1881 strike that stunned Atlanta appeared first on Atlanta Magazine. Read MoreAtlanta Magazine

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