New play 'The Wash' highlights real-life Atlanta labor strike

"How come I have never heard of this before?"

That single question changed Atlanta native Kelundra Smith’s life. And now, with her world-premiere play "The Wash," Smith is hoping nobody will need to ask it again.

"The Wash" tells the real-life story of the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen strike, during which Black laundresses led a strike for better wages in the weeks leading up to the International Cotton Exposition.

"The Atlanta washerwomen strike was one of the first and largest successful labor strikes of the post-Civil War era," explains Smith. "African-American laundresses who were fed up with being stiffed on their wages decided to take their power back, and they said, ‘No pay, no wash.’"

Smith first became aware of the story during a 2017 trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The writer says she was astounded that she hadn't previously learned about the historical event, and upon further research, became inspired to write about it.

"When I think of clothes flying in the street, people getting their laundry back wet or soiled, people wrestling each other to say, ’No, you’re on strike now, we’re not working anymore,’ it felt theatrical to me," Smith says.

"The Wash" was chosen by the National New Play Network for its Rolling World Premiere initiative, which means three or more theaters premiere distinct productions of the play within an 18-month period. The play opened at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre last month and is set to take the stage at The Academy Theatre in Hapeville in a production from Impact Theatre Atlanta from July 11 through 28. It is then scheduled to open in theaters in St. Louis and Chicago in 2025.

For more information on the upcoming Impact Theatre Atlanta production (directed by Brenda Porter), click here. 

For full interviews with Kelundra Smith, director Brenda Porter, and actor Nevaina, watch this weekend’s all-new "Behind the Scenes with Paul Milliken" at 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, streaming on all FOX 5 Atlanta platforms.