Gone, but not 'Forgotten' Activist minister remembered in jazz opera 'Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant'

By K. Michelle Moran
Arts & Entertainment Editor
C&G Newspapers
Warren, Michigan

Even in Detroit - heart of the modern labor movement - the story of the late Rev. Lewis Bradford has long been untold.

That's about to change with the world premiere of the jazz opera "Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant," presented by the Michigan Labor History Society March 5-7 at the Marygrove College Theatre in Detroit. Through its blues and jazz songs, the show explores the life of the Methodist minister, whose efforts to better conditions for working people are believed to have led to his mysterious death in 1937, after he was found unconscious in an isolated section of the Ford River Rouge plant.

Bradford's story might have remained untold, had it not been for the tenacity of his great-nephew, Maryland jazz musician Steve Jones. The family had long-suspected foul play, but Jones was able to prove it. After getting a sympathetic Wayne County medical examiner's office clerk to track down Bradford's autopsy report, the office reviewed it and labeled Bradford's death a homicide.

Executive Producer Dave Elsila of Grosse Pointe Park said the experience prompted Jones to pen the songs that would become "Forgotten." Labor theater vet Elise Bryant has returned to Michigan to direct.

Bradford hosted radio's "The Forgotten Man's Hour," for which he interviewed people in soup kitchen and bread lines. To pay for his daughter's medical expenses, he began working at the Rouge plant. There, Bradford urged Henry Ford to improve relations between management and workers, but Ford reportedly refused the offer.

"I didn't know much about the show before I got cast, but when I started learning about Lewis and everyone involved, I felt a real connection with the past," said Jason Landis of Clawson, who plays Bradford.

Part socially oriented musical, part gripping detective story, Elsila said "Forgotten" is appealing on multiple levels.

The show features a band that will play from the center of the stage, Stage Manager Elaine (Hendriks) Smith of Eastpointe said.

"We've put together a wonderful cast that includes professional actors from Actors Equity and musicians from the Detroit Federation of Musicians, and a chorus made up of rank and file workers from throughout the metropolitan area," Elsila said.

Performers in the show include musician Mark Moultrup (as Henry Ford) of Royal Oak, Jim Salerno of Warren and Aisha Sly of Clinton Township.

Even theater veterans like Smith say they've been moved by "Forgotten."

"I have never done a show like this show," Smith said. "This show has a magnetism to it, and I think part of it is that it is about our city, about our home. But I think part of it is just the human struggle itself."

The setting might be the 1930s, but Elsila said "Forgotten" remains relevant.

"I think, if you look at some of the problems we face today, we have 43 million people who don't have health insurance," he observed. "We have millions and millions of people who are living below the poverty line. I think there are some similarities to the problems that working people face today that they faced back then."

You can reach K. Michelle Moran at kmoran@candgnews.com