A Question for Labor Day: Why is there so little theater about labor?


Where are the American plays about unions, or workers, or even just workplaces? Of some 200 new plays I’ve seen or read  since I first asked that question exactly a year ago, on the last Labor Day — a legal holiday created by Congress in 1884 to celebrate the labor union movement — I can count no more than a half dozen that could reasonably be considered workplace dramas, or at least plays about working.

Even most of those are a stretch. “Marys Seacole,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s  challenging and powerful collage of a drama, tells the story of modern-day professional caregivers by riffing on a pioneering nurse from the 19thcentury.

“Lunch Bunch,” a play by  Sarah Einspanier that had a short run as part of  Clubbed Thumb’s 24th annual  Summerworks festival, presents the stressed-out lawyers at a Bronx Public Defenders Office almost entirely through the food they eat at lunch. They’ve formed a lunch club, each member having agreed to make lunch for everybody else once a week.

“Plainclothes” by Spenser Davis, which was produced by Broken Nose Theater in Chicago, and won ATCA’s 2019 Osborn New Play Award, tells the story of the security guards in a large department, after a violent encounter with a shoplifter has left half the team fired or hospitalized. Those who remain are defensive, demoralized and faced with a moral dilemma: As the playwright put it, “do we give the higher-ups exactly what they want, or do we try to do what’s right?” In a note in the script, Davis describes his play as the first in a trilogy about “working class Chicagoans.”

But even in “Plainclothes,” as with the rest of the half dozen plays, the word “union” never appears.

That of course just reflects the current reality of the world of labor. 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 2018, it was down to 10.5 percent.

Perhaps ironically, the theater industry itself has an unusually high percentage of union members – actors, stagehands, designers, directors, writers, musicians.  Actors Equity Association 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 106 years later, Actors Equity is still going strong, representing more than 50,000 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.

Yet so little of that understanding seems shared with theatergoers, although most surely spend the majority of their waking hours working.

“Is our theatre now inescapably middle-class? “ UK drama critic Michael Billington asked six years ago in The Guardian, lamenting the loss of  “unpatronising portrayals 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.) He didn’t even mention the heyday of the working class drama, the 1930s. One of the biggest hits of that decade,  “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.

Still, the answer to Billington’s question is no, not completely.

Every year since the critic asked that question, I’ve seen at least one fine drama 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 has since become startlingly relevant: It is about the mistreatment of the office staff by a thinly-veiled character clearly based on Harvey Weinstein.

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 2017, “Sweat” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and ran on Broadway, albeit for only four months. But in 2018, the first-ever  Public Theater’s Mobile Unit National, took Nottage’s play on an 18-stop tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — all states with districts up for grab in the midterm elections.  And as we know, voters last November in most of those states and others swung the House of Representatives to a Democratic, pro-labor majority.

Moments of labor consciousness seem rare on stage these days, but those that do exist are a vivid demonstration of the potential power of theater. To paraphrase a lyric from Hamilton, these moments can add up to a movement.

Author: 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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