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.

 

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
· 33 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
· 40 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.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 92 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 26 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 5 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM 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 Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.