March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Mid Michigan Family Theatre salutes a photojournalist who exposed the perils of child labor

Wednesday, Oct. 5 — Important historical figures can sometimes be obscured and forgotten over time. But theater director Bill Gordon wants to make sure that doesn’t happen in Lewis Hine’s case.
Gordon’s new production, “The Man with the Camera,” portrays the exploits of photojournalist Hine, who worked as an undercover investigator for the National Children’s Labor Committee in the early decades of the 20th century. Hine’s work helped to blow the lid off the disreputable and draconian working conditions of children during an era of lax or non-existent labor laws.
Gordon’s Mid Michigan Family Theatre involves actors and actresses of all ages performing family-friendly plays, but that term doesn’t mean the subject matter won’t be serious.
Hine’s investigations of children in harsh working conditions might not be what first springs to mind upon hearing the phrase “family theater,” but Gordon thinks it’s important to tell this story because of the impact Hine’s work had. In six vignettes — each focusing on a different exploitative industry such as coal mines, canneries, or “newsies” — the play shows what Hine or one of his associates would have seen during their covert investigations, and recreates the melancholic moments when Hine snapped the pictures of children that would change America.
When asked if the production became intense for the adult and youth cast members, Gordon said it took a lot of effort to bring the material to a family audience, and that “it’s pushed me, and it’s pushed our actors as well.”
It was necessary for him to edit some details from his source material in order to produce dialogue and imagery appropriate for children, and in this way Gordon hopes to strike a balance between confronting serious material from a bleak era and presenting it palatably to both adults and children. Gordon sees the history of Hine and his research as too important not to seek out that balance.
Ultimately, Gordon is trying to teach both his cast and his audience about American history. There is no attempt at crusading in his play, no statement about present-day child labor practices at home or abroad. Gordon simply wants to educate, to impart a little bit of history through the eyes of one of America’s greatest photographers. Hine gave a human face to the deplorable conditions in which children were made to work, and Gordon finds that aspect of the tale irresistibly admirable.
While Hine “was a cranky old man,” Gordon says, and may have died in poverty and ignominy, we still need to be reminded of who he was, and what he did to help save America’s children.

"The Man With the Camera"
Mid Michigan Family Theatre
440 Frandor Ave., Lansing
Through Oct. 16
7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
$6 adults and students; $4 for pre-schoolers
(517) 339-2145