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 email@example.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.
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