On a Labor Day when Hollywood writers and actors have been on strike for months now, there is a fitting if startling answer this year to the question I ask every Labor Day, which is a legal holiday created by Congress in 1884 to celebrate not the American barbecue but the American labor union movement: Where are the American plays about labor — about workers, or workplaces, or unions?
The workers I’ve seen depicted this past year on New York stages have been arts workers – such as the actors from the 1930s who were part of the Federal Theater Project as dramatized in the play The Nobodies Who Were Everybody. The workplaces have been a movie set and a music “factory” – in the Broadway shows The Shark Is Broken and KPOP respectively. The only play about a union I’ve seen on stage since last Labor Day was entitled “Burbank ” by Cameron Darwin Bossert at The Wild Project, about the 1941 strike by animators against their employer, Disney.’’
Is this a sign that arts workers are turning inwards because their very livelihoods feel threatened? It contrasts with the previous New York theater season, which even on Broadway featured plays about auto workers (Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew”) and kitchen workers (Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s” ) and an unusual workplace comedy set in the White House ( “POTUS” )
This past season’s focus on entertainment workers might just be a coincidence. What’s clear is that there has been a shift – on stage, and in the nation – in the attitudes towards workers.
According to Gallup’s latest annual Work and Education poll, conducted last month, 67 percent of Americans approve of unions in general — and 72 percent sympathize more with the television and film writers than with the television and film production studios. A majority also believe that unions mostly help rather than hurt union members, the companies where they work, and the U.S. economy as a whole, with “a record-high 47 percent” now believing unions also help rather than hurt nonunion workers.
“This has been a historic summer for organized labor,” proclaims a recent email from Working Theater, a company that recently finished its 38th season of creating “award-winning professional theater for, about and with working people.” In the email, the company encouraged its theatergoers “to check out the active strikes on the AFL-CIO website and show your support by joining a picket line in your community.”
If there’s no way to pretend that the workplace is a prominent setting on the New York stage, there has always been some theater 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”
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.\
The two years since the return of in-person theater has been both a step up and a step back – yes, as I mentioned, “Skeleton Crew” and “Clyde’s,” but the most popular play on Broadway, winner of the Tony Award for Best Play, was “The Lehman Trilogy,” about the 164-year rise and collapse of the financial institution the Lehman Brothers. Broadway was also host to a drama about a lawyer and a comedy about teachers – the sort of professions that are staples on serial television – but the teachers of The Thanksgiving Play were mocked, and the lawyer in Prima Facie had to become a victim herself to realize how horrible her profession is; neither, in short, had anything to do with the struggle for dignity in the workplace.
What will the new season bring? This month alone will see the first preview performances at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater of Jocelyn Bioh’s Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, a play set among the workers in a hair salon in Harlem, and the opening Off-Broadway of Job, a two-character play at Soho Playhouse by Max Wolf Friedlich in which an employee at a big tech company has been placed on leave after becoming the subject of a viral video. According to the play’s blurb, “she arrives in the office of a crisis therapist determined to be reinstated to the job that gives her life meaning,”
Both plays suggest the change in the labor force in the third year of the third decade of the twenty-first century — and a redefinition of the labor play.