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Plays for Labor Day. In praise of theater about unions, workers and workplaces.

It was while attending the current revival of Lillian Hellman’s 1936 play “Days to Come,” which is set during a strike at a brush factory in Ohio,  that I suddenly wondered: Where are the American plays about unions, or workers, or even just workplaces?

It seems an apt question for Labor Day, which, contrary to what may be public perception, was not created to promote barbecues. Congress passed a law making Labor Day a legal holiday in 1884 to celebrate the labor union movement, a holiday first proposed by a labor union official

 

Looking at the list put together recently by the theater critics of the New York Times of the best 25 plays in the last 25 years, only two of the plays could reasonably be considered workplace dramas (and even that a stretch) – “The Flick,” about movie house ushers, and “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” about wrestlers. None of the 25 focus on unions.

But even in Entertainment Weekly’s 2013 list of the 50 best plays of the past 100 years, only Arthur Miller’s 1949 “Death of A Salesman” and Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 “Machinal” give us a sense of what working life is like in America.

The truth is, there are plays about workers. “Days to Come” was not successful when it debuted on Broadway; it lasted just seven performances. But one of the biggest hits of the 1930’s, “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets,  presented a meeting of cab drivers who are planning a labor strike– and included the audience as if part of the meeting. The play was produced on Broadway (at the Longacre and then the Belasco) in 1935 by the Group Theater for a total of 168 performances, but then spread to theaters (and union halls) across the country.

In the last few years, I’ve seen several fine plays specifically about the taxing conditions of workers in various workplaces – in 2014, To The Bone, a play by Lisa Ramirez about Latina workers in an upstate chicken slaughterhouse and My Manana Comes, Elizabeth Irwin’s play about the kitchen staff in a fancy Manhattan restaurant; in 2015, Gloria  by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins took place in the offices of a publication similar to the New Yorker magazine (which is where Jacobs-Jenkins once worked.) The copy editors and office workers in this play do not fit into American conventional notions of working class, but workplace issues are not limited to blue collar workers; the story revolves around one undervalued worker being driven to a shocking act of violence. Another such play about white collar workers is entitled Assistance, which Leslye Headland wrote in 2008, and I saw in 2012, and which became startlingly relevant in 2017: It is about the mistreatment of the office staff by a thinly-veiled character clearly based on Harvey Weinstein.

And then in 2016, there were the stellar examples of Dominique Morisseau’s play Skeleton Crew, about the mostly African-American workers in a dying auto services plant in Detroit, and  Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” about the social and economic breakdown of a group of friends of varying ethnicities in Reading, Pennsylvania with the decline of the local factory.

In none of these recent plays do I recall a union being a part of the story (certainly not a central factor) But even just as worker or workplace dramas, such plays are the exception; few are heralded or emulated. This arguably reflects what seems to have become an American consensus. Many of us don’t value “the worker” the way earlier generations did; don’t even identify as workers; minimize workplace stresses and inequities; and don’t see unions as a solution.

The numbers tell the story. At their peak in 1954, almost 35 percent of all U.S. wage and salary workers belonged to unions, according to the Congressional Research Service. By 1983, according to the Department of Labor, that percentage had decreased to 20 percent. In 2017, it was under 11 percent.

“Is our theatre now inescapably middle-class? “ English drama critic Michael Billington asked in The Guardian five years ago,  lamenting the loss of  “unpatronising portrayal of working-class life” in so-called “kitchen sink” plays such as Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (which was produced on Broadway in 1960 starring Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and Billy Dee Williams)

Yet, the theater – actors, stagehands, designers, directors, writers, musicians  – are disproportionately members of unions.  Actors Equity was formed in 1913, and held its first strike in 1919. “The producers looked upon actors as silly children,” recalled Tallulah Bankhead, “vain, illogical, capricious, even slightly demented. How could artists hope to function in something so plebeian as a union?”

Some producers may still think so, but 105 years later, Actors Equity is still going strong, representing more than 48,000 actors and stage managers.

Many in the theater community surely understand firsthand that our “gig economy,” that our “digital age,” hasn’t made the labor movement obsolete; it’s made it more important.

“Sweat,” though it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ran just under four months on Broadway. But listen up and take heart: In the first project of the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit National, from September 27th to October 23rd, an 18-stop tour of Lynn Nottage’s play will travel through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — all states with districts up for grab in the midterm elections. This is not a coincidence.  It is part of a movement.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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