Theater Question for Labor Day: Does the Reckoning Over Race + Class = Intriguing New Plays About Workers and Workplaces?

Adesola Osakalumi in “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 play about Detroit workers, now scheduled for Broadway.

Where are the American plays about unions, or workers, or even just workplaces? I started asking that question several years ago on Labor Day, a legal holiday created by Congress in 1884 to celebrate the labor union movement.

Each year, of the hundreds of new plays I’ve seen or read since the previous Labor Day, I can usually count no more than a half dozen that even remotely fit the bill. 

Last Labor Day, I wondered whether the theater community’s new consciousness as “arts workers” would result in more art about workers on stage.

A year later, the answer seems to be a qualified yes – maybe not more, but more visible, and more intriguing. 

Several plays over the past year, and a few scheduled for the 2021-2022 Broadway season, reflect the pandemic era’s reckoning over race and (although less acknowledged) over class. 

The reckoning extended to theater itself as a workplace, in the virtual production of Torrey Townsend’s play, “Off Broadway,” which in June presented a blunt satirical indictment of the racism, sexism, cluelessness, stupidity and outright criminal behavior that the leaders inflict on the workers for a fictitious non-profit theater company.

“Clyde’s,” a new play by Lynn Nottage scheduled to open on Broadway in November with a cast including Uza Aduba and Ron Cephas Jones, is set in a truck stop sandwich shop that offers its formerly incarcerated kitchen staff a shot at reclaiming their lives, even as the shop’s callous owner tries to keep them under her thumb

 “Skeleton Crew,” Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 play about the mostly African-American workers in a dying auto services plant in Detroit,is starting on Broadway in December with a cast led by Phylicia Rashad.

It would be hard to argue that these handful of plays represents a radical departure in American theater – not because there aren’t that many of them, but because there has always been 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.

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 was the stellar example of Morisseau’s  Skeleton Crew, now slated for Broadway, 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, presented 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, 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.”

In 2020, despite (or because of?) the absence of physical theaters, there was an effort to dramatize the stories of what we had come to call essential workers, in such new plays as “The Line,” an online docudrama by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen about front-line medical workers battling COVID-10, and “That Kindness: Nurses in Their Own Words,” compiled by the playwright formerly known as Eve Ensler. But one of the best and most unusual plays of the year redefined the concept of worker: Sarah Gancher’s “Russian Troll Farm,” subtitled “A Workplace Comedy” was inspired by the true story of the Internet Research Agency, the innocuous sounding Russian company that worked to get Trump elected in the U.S. through fake news, incendiary memes and dummy social media posts promoting baseless conspiracy theories. It is the play’s hilarious insight that the trolls hired to execute this campaign acted like office workers everywhere, complaining about their boss, resenting their backstabbing co-workers, trying to find meaning and pride in their work. “I think what we do is evil but I still want to do a good job at it,” one character says.

Does even such a satirical example presage a growing labor consciousness as part of the “reimagined theater” that many are hoping for? As the arts reopen, will theater artists still think of themselves as arts workers?

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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