Labor Day and the Labor Play

Where are the American plays about labor? About unions, or workers, or workplaces? 

I’ve been asking that question every Labor Day,  a legal holiday created by Congress in 1884 to celebrate  not the American barbecue but the American labor union movement.

This year, one answer is: On Broadway. 

This shouldn’t be surprising, given what’s happening in the nation. Suddenly, labor unions are no longer viewed just as relics of the 1930s. Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of them, according to a new Gallup Poll, which is the highest percentage since 1965. Throughout the country, according to the Washington Post,  mostly younger employees “at some of the nation’s best-known companies, Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI and Chipotle”  have been organizing unions for the first time; so have “museum workers, digital journalists, grad students, nurses, adjunct professors, cannabis workers, and those toiling for political campaigns and nonprofit organizations…” Theater artists, who long have been organized into unions, have started to view themselves as “arts workers”

Coincidentally or not, this past season on Broadway,  Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew” featured unionized workers in a dying auto services plant in Detroit, and Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s”  featured kitchen workers in a truck stop sandwich shop, all of whom were formerly incarcerated. Several more plays on Broadway arguably viewed their settings as nontraditional workplaces, with some of the same problems that confront workers anywhere: “POTUS” (the White House as workplace, with a special emphasis on how difficult it is for women workers), “Trouble in Mind” (the theater as workplace, with a special emphasis on how difficult it is for Black workers), “Take Me Out” (members of a baseball team, with a focus on how difficult it is for LGBT workers.), “The Minutes” (the members of a small town city council; how difficult it is for workers with integrity.)

“Take Me Out” is returning in the Fall, a season that will also see the revival of Arthur Miller’s 1949 “Death of A Salesman,” which many consider the best American play ever written, and which, if not explicitly a labor play, gives us a sense of what working life is like in America. Other plays scheduled for Broadway in the Fall include “Cost of Living,” which looks at people with disabilities and their caretakers, and “KPOP,” a look at the Korean music industry.

Now, there’s no way to pretend that the workplace is as prominent a setting on the New York stage as it is on the small screen, or stream, although those workplaces tend to be not of blue collar workers, but of rich (and good-looking) lawyers, doctors, bankers and businessmen. A workplace is a practical setting for episodic television.

But in any given season there is always some theater in New York concerned with workers and the struggle for dignity in the workplace.

Click on any photograph to read the caption.

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, such as Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 “Machinal”

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  “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, 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 that year 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.

When in-person theater returned in 2021, the most prominent play on Broadway was “The Lehman Trilogy,” which dramatizes the 164-year rise and collapse of the financial institution the Lehman Brothers. “The Lehman Trilogy” seems very far from a labor play, and one whose success might call into question whether that growing “arts workers” consciousness during the pandemic would indeed lead to the reimagined theater that many had been predicting.

It does say something, though, that I just received an email urging me to “Show your support and show up for the NYC Labor Day Parade this Saturday, September 10th. Back in person for the first time since 2019, this parade marks the 140th Anniversary of the first Labor Day Parade. Come watch and cheer as thousands of workers from over 200 unions make their way from New York City Hall to Union Square…”

The message was sent by Working Theater, a company recently having finished its 37th season of creating “award-winning professional theater for, about and with working people.” Its latest season included the play “7 Minutes,” based on actual events about an urgent meeting of the 11 women and gender non-conforming folks elected to the union council of their rural Connecticut textile factory. It was written by Stefano Massini, the playwright who also wrote “The Lehman Trilogy.”

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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