by Catie Kline
art by Derya Taspinar
This fall break, I ventured back to my birthplace of Chester County, Pennsylvania, where I was lucky enough to see the world premiere of playwright Eisa Davis’ new work, “Mushroom” at the local People’s Light theater. The first-ever bilingual production at the theater, “Mushroom” explores the largely community-ignored experiences of the immigrant and migrant workers that uphold the Chester County agricultural industry.
ChesCo is home to Kennett Square, the self-professed “mushroom capital of the world.” Thanks to some of the most fertile land on the east coast, a proximity to vendor cities like Philly, NYC, and Baltimore, and a group of 1880s horticulturists who utilized the space underneath carnation beds for growing fungi, this little town 40 miles south of Philadelphia now produces over 50% of the nation’s mushroom supply. Kennett hosts The Mushroom Festival annually, filled with countless vendors, tens of thousands of attendees, and a mushroom eating contest. Every New Year’s, Kennett hosts the “Mushroom Drop,” where crowds gather in the streets to watch a 700-pound stainless steel glittering mushroom descend to the ground. While the industry takes a giant spotlight in community culture, the labor and struggles of immigrant mushroom pickers that keep the industry afloat are rarely celebrated and often ignored.
The set of “Mushroom” resembles a mushroom house. Wooden bunks set up in the back appear as “doubles”–wooden tiered mushroom cultivation racks that fill the tiny, windowless houses on mushroom farms. The stage is also covered in chopped cork that resembles mounds of dirt. The play centers around seven characters, mostly immigrants from Mexico, and their connections to the Kennett mushroom industry. Furthermore, the characters are linked by Epifanio, a mushroom picker who suffers a workplace injury, and doesn’t get paid for the time in which he can’t work.
“Mushroom” is deeply realistic and truthful, drawn from the actual experiences of Chester County residents. Eisa Davis began working on “Mushroom” in 2013. She has worked with the Chester County Food Bank, La Comunidad Hispana (LCH) Health and Community Services, and various mushroom farms in ChesCo. Anel Medina, a nurse, DACA recipient, and community activist who works with LCH inspired the main character of the play. Nina M. Guzman, executive director of Alianzas de Phoenixville said this regarding the play, “How emocionante this is for us. Our comunidad gets to see themselves in the true light of their struggle, humanity, and dignity without the filtering out of our realist passion and pain! We will be there with our hearts in our hands!”
In “Mushroom,” audiences learn that human labor accounts for the harvest of one hundred percent of fungi harvests. Fungi is one of the only crops that cannot be harvested with machines. Unlike other farming industries, mushroom farming is year-round. In one scene, while a white mushroom farm owner takes someone on a tour of the farm, the narrator, named “Third-Person Omniscient” in the program, interjects: “What Tyler does not say, what Epifanio and Lety know, is that if you work here, you get up at 3am and you eat. And then you go into work at 4. If it’s summer, you start at 2:30 am. You lean over all day standing on the floor or on a ladder. Your hair is covered. Your hands are covered. Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s steamy, sometimes you can’t see. Breathing problems, hypertension, diabetes, body ache, back pain, shoulder pain, stress.” On top of workplace discrimination, the characters face the constant, looming threat of ICE.
In the program, Eisa Davis wrote her thanks to researcher Dr. Hannah Johnston, who worked on mushroom farms for years and worked with the only mushroom farmers union. In her paper “Cultivating Governance: The Production of Mushrooms and Mushroom Workers,” Dr. Johnston interviewed several mushroom workers, and found that the piece-rate payments and workplace discrimination left the workers woefully underpaid. Pickers are typically paid by the amount of mushrooms they pick in a day. Pickers estimated that ‘10-pound’ boxes actually weighed between 14-17 pounds. “Thus, for every ‘10-pound’ box that weighs 15 pounds, companies are able to extract five pounds of free labor.” Johnston also investigated the use of contratistas, who “often fulfill identical workplace duties alongside direct company employees, however within mushroom houses, there is unclear legal jurisdiction over subcontracted laborers. This results in many companies attempting to absolve themselves of all responsibility to individual contratistas…In what I have seen, this often renders workers unaware of their rights and unaware of when said rights are violated.”
In recent history, there has only been one union of mushroom workers in Pennsylvania. The Kaolin Workers Union was disbanded in 2014, when it was a target of a decertification drive, an effort of right-wing groups to dismantle unions. Today, there are no unionized mushroom workers anywhere in Pennsylvania. There have even been ICE raids at mushroom farms, where ICE was let onto the property by the employers.
On what the community can do to help, Dr. Johnston said, “having things like sanctuary cities is really important. Having some understanding of where your food comes from, who picks your food, as a consumer is really valuable. Consumer boycotts have historically been really important for farmer organizing and building broader bases of support…worker’s lives are multifaceted and complex. When there’s immigrant organizing going on and a need for solidarity from community members who have the privilege of having documents, that show of solidarity is really important. Any sort of support for ensuring that social services are accessible broadly is important.” “Mushroom” believes in its audience. Associate Producer Nikko Kimzin said, “From the start, Eisa and the creative team have approached this project in the spirit of curiosity, deep listening, and collaboration. We believe Mushroom will be a catalyst for a deeper discussion around immigrant experiences in this region.” At one point in the play, the characters repeat the affirmation “Kennett Square is a good place.” The play illuminates the injustices mushroom workers face in the community, with hope that audience members will rise up and take action. The play ends with a person in need coming to the cast of characters. The characters are confused, they don’t know exactly what to do, but they provide food and water. They sit with the person. They ask, “Do you need help?” The play begs its audience, largely white and unfamiliar with the subject matter, to ask questions, to provide help, and to listen.