Not Waiting for Lefties to Engage the Arts

On the April 15 national day of action for Fight for $15, members of New York City’s DSA chapter went to the rally and march, then headed down to The Barrow Group Theater in Midtown for a staged reading of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty and a panel discussion on why unions matter.

The first performance of this 1935 play is a legend in the American theater, a testament to the power of art. Performed for a one-night benefit for New Theatre Magazine, Lefty was loosely based on the New York City taxi driver strike of the previous year. Odets used the story as a springboard to declare open war on capitalism in the midst of one of the most difficult economic periods in U.S. history and to uncover an unspoken rage just below the surface, a sense that the lives of working people were overly determined by their dependence on a system bent on keeping them in their place. It was performed by The Group Theatre—itself a somewhat radical collective of artists who lived together, made work together, and developed what became known as an “American acting technique.” Contemporary accounts describe the play seeming to unleash something dramatic, communal, and undeniable. By the end of the performance, the 1,400 audience members were stomping and raising their fists to “Strike!” with such vigor that the performers worried the balcony would fall down. It would soon become a much-produced and popular play in small theaters and union halls across the country.

 

Following the April 15 reading, which packed the 100-seat theater, the panel discussion opened up a conversation on the role of unions today. Maria Svart, DSA national director, gave a brief overview of what unions are and how they work; theater director Mary Robinson expanded on the significance of Waiting for Lefty in today’s theater landscape; and Local 1180 Communication Workers of America, AFL-CIO president Arthur Cheliotes gave an impassioned plea for solidarity as unions fight for support and legitimacy in the face of draconian state and federal laws.

The night brought together theater artists, many of whom were unfamiliar with left-wing politics or unions, and labor activists, many of whom were unfamiliar with the role that art has played and can play in political discourse and action. Waiting for Lefty’s legacy is of performances in auditoriums, union halls, theaters, and civic spaces, making collective action seem possible through honest and direct conversation with the people who live those struggles but believe that they are alone in them.

The power of radical art lies in breaking down that perception of solitude and highlighting shared experiences, in imbuing that discussion with a sense of both pathos and possibility. The time is ripe for a renewal of that sense, and a radical play that is still relevant after 80 years challenges us to imagine the possibilities for collective action that exist today.

The play is designed to be produced with a minimal set and maximum participation. It offers DSA locals a way to make new connections and reach new groups. You can ask a community theater or campus theater group for professional help, if you need it. To produce your own reading of Waiting for Lefty, you’ll need (1) actors to interpret and play the parts, (2) a director to stage the reading and guide the actors, (3) a producer to secure the rights (email george.laneasst@caa.com with an explanation of the size of the venue and scale of production), (4) rehearsal space, (5) a room that can accommodate your audience, (6) insurance if your room is not otherwise insured, (7) provocative speakers if you would like to host a panel discussion, (8) a visual artist to design publicity, (9) refreshments, and (10) plenty of time to do publicity and turnout.

Paul Bedard (paulhbedard.com) is a founder and artistic director of Theater in Asylum and a Drama League Directing Fellow.

Alexis Roblan’s plays have been produced and developed in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. She is a member of New Perspectives Theatre Company’s Women’s Work Project.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

LGBTQ Conference Call

February 20, 2017
· 41 rsvps

DSA is in the process of forming an LGBTQ Working Group. This call will cover a discussion of possible activities for the group, its proposed structure, assigning tasks, and reports on the revision of DSA's LGBT statement and on possible political education activities. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

DSA New Member Orientation Call

February 22, 2017
· 25 rsvps

You've joined DSA - Great. Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision.  And, most importantly, how you can become involved.  8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6pm MT; 5 pm PT.  

What Is DSA? Training Call

March 03, 2017
· 26 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Feminist Working Group

March 07, 2017
· 12 rsvps

People of all genders are welcome to join this call to discuss DSA's work on women's and LGBTQ issues, especially in light of the new political reality that we face after the elections.  9 pm ET; 8 pm CT; 7 pm MT; 6 pm PT.

LGBT Activism: A Brief History with Thoughts about the Future

April 01, 2017
· 2 rsvps

Historian John D'Emilio's presentation will do 3 things: Provide a brief explanation of how sexual and gender identities have emerged; provide an overview of the progression of LGBT activism since its origins in the 1950s, highlighting key moments of change; and, finally, suggest what issues, from a democratic socialist perspective, deserve prioritizing now. 1 pm ET; 12 pm CT; 11 am MT; 10 am PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Peg Strobel, peg.strobel@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 20 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But also check out the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.