On past Labor Days, I’ve asked: Where are the American plays about unions, or workers, or even just workplaces? But now that “arts workers” have turned Labor Day into an #ArtsWorkersUnited Day of Action, the question becomes: Will COVID-19, the shutdown of theaters, and the strident new labor consciousness of the theater community change what we see on stage?
There is some evidence it already has (even without literal stages) in such new plays as The Line, an online docudrama by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen about front-line medical workers battling COVID-10.
Whether that will still be true when the crises have ended is of course impossible to predict. “Arts workers” have long been more active in unions than workers as a whole. So on this Labor Day — a legal holiday created by Congress in 1884 to celebrate the labor union movement — it’s worth once again singling out theater that has concerned itself with workers and the struggle for dignity in the workplace.
There was of course 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. But there have been classic plays both before and after the 1930s: 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.
Over the years there have been some popular musicals that at least tangentially have grappled with issues involving workers — Newsies, The Pajama Game, Billy Elliott, Working.
Such theater is not just in the past. Every year, I see 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 that November in most of those states and others swung the House of Representatives to a Democratic, pro-labor majority.
In 2019, there were several plays that thrust us into the world of the worker.. “Marys Seacole,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s challenging and powerful collage of a drama, told 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.”
If moments of labor consciousness on stage have seemed rare in the last few decades, they have not disappeared entirely. To paraphrase a lyric from Hamilton, these moments can add up to a movement.