Theater & Activism: The Working Theater Company’s 2011 Annual Awards Gala

The Working Theater Company’s gala evening was a breath of fresh air on a musty May evening in New York City.  A friend had invited me to join her table, providing an opportunity for exposure to this inclusive, politically-aware company (mission statement available on their website).

The evening’s speakers were eloquent and their words obviously heartfelt. The company’s dedication to providing a voice for working Americans in the theater was clearly articulated, and they displayed their working process and its results to attendees through a series of short scenes, performed during the meal.

This entertainment included selected scenes from Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, and hearing the work discussed reminded me of hearing Scottish theater activists talking about John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil.

A series of scenes from Lefty – directed by members of the 2nd Annual Working Theater Director’s Salon – unfolded for the audience, each presented in a mash-up of different styles and approaches to a single text. Their presentation, particularly the first scene presented, was profoundly affecting, and that first scene deserves some particular discussion.

For those who have not read or seen Waiting for Lefty, Wikipedia gives a summary of the first presented scene (reproduced, below), which was directed by Rebecca Martinez and featured Philip Callen (Joe) and Kate Benson (Edna).

The taxi drivers remain dimly visible on stage as Edna joins Joe in their home (the scene is – supposed to take place a week before the play’s first scene). She tells him that their furniture, unpaid for, was repossessed. They argue; Joe claims that strikes do not work, and that they lose money while they are on strike, while she says that while his salary barely covers rent now, soon the owners will push down their wages even more. She says his boss is “making suckers” out of the workers, and out of their families. Joe tells her she’ll wake the children, but she says she only wants to wake him up. She calls his union “rotten,” since they don’t tell the workers what their plans are. Joe admits they’re “racketeers.” When Edna challenges Joe to stand up to them, and he backs down, she tells him she’s going back to her old boyfriend, since he earns a living. The taxi drivers, still in the dark, whisper words like “She will.” Edna turns the subject to Joe’s boss who, she says, is creating all these problems. She encourages Joe to start a workers’ union without the racketeers. Joe gets swept up in her passion and tells her he’s going to find Lefty Costello. Edna cheers him on. Back in the taxi driver’s meeting, one of the men says that his fellow workers know better than he does, and that “We gotta walk out!””   

While the Wikipedia entry outlines the events that move this scene forward, it obviously cannot encapsulate the emotion which Callen and Benson brought to the scene, nor the rough desperation Martinez brought out, then tempered, in her performers. Martinez, Callen and Benson truly elevated the emotional experience for audience members during their portion of the performance. With this scene and those that followed in mind, I can imagine wide audience interest in this production, particularly in regional theaters where its message could be further spread. My sense is that, nationally, unions might do well in spreading their message of communal responsibility and support were they to explore supporting regional productions of this exceptional depression-era work in locations that have been hard-hit by job losses and wage depreciation.

The evening concluded with the presentation of the 2011 Annual Awards Ceremony honoring George Gresham, President of the 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, for Bridging the Gap Between the Arts, Labor and Community.

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