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Waiting for Lefty, and Still Waiting
When Patricia Riggin, associate professor of the practice of theater at Boston College, arrived at an early September read-through for her production of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, the cast of 20 students was already seated. She joined them at the circle of folding tables arranged on the Robsham Theater main stage, unfolded her copy of the New York Times, and asked her students just what, these days, got them angry.
Outrage pervades this one-act play. “It is agitprop theater . . . and it’s propaganda,” she would tell the cast. “Your job is to make the truth of it.”
Waiting for Lefty opens with a meeting of New York City taxi drivers considering a strike. As individual workers stand before a union leader and voice their opinions, the scene intermittently gives way to vignettes from their personal lives: Joe, a driver, and his wife, Edna, arguing because money is tight and they are struggling to put food on the table for their children. A young couple, Sid and Florrie, in despair—will Sid, a driver, ever make enough to marry? As these episodes unfold, the workers at the union meeting become increasingly angry until, in the play’s climactic moment, they find the courage to strike.
It might be said that Waiting for Lefty arrived furiously, as Odets wrote the play in three days in 1934, in a Boston hotel room. On opening night at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre in 1935, the audience so identified with the taxi workers on stage that the fourth wall tumbled. Men and women in the audience responded to the drama as if a real labor dispute were unfolding before them. They yelled for a strike. They delivered applause through 28 curtain calls. Ruth Nelson, who originated the role of Edna, said she worried all the stomping and cheering would bring down the balcony.
Riggin wanted her students to imbue their characters with their own political frustrations. “When you scream out, ‘Strike,'” she said, at the read-through, “that anger must be engendered from a true source.” So she repeated her question. What, today, makes you angry?
Answers came slowly at first, but then in a torrent: The lack of funding for Boston Public Schools, said a student. The proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pass through Standing Rock Sioux ancestral lands, said another. Female genital mutilation, said a student who had just finished reading Cuttin’ It, Charlene James’s play. Another had recently read about Ruby Bridges, one of the first black children to integrate a public elementary school in Louisiana, and the treatment she’d endured. Someone else told the group that she had been catcalled the other morning while out walking, and that she’d “felt objectified.”
“You can connect this rage to the cab company rage,” Riggin told her students, and then she began the read-through.
Though Waiting for Lefty was written more than 80 years ago, Riggin believes that 2016, the 150th anniversary of the country’s first national labor federation (the National Labor Union, which splintered after seven years, in 1873), is the perfect time to stage the play. “This is not just an old story,” she said, sitting in her office on the first floor of Rubenstein Hall a month before the opening. She sees the drama of Lefty renewed in the political climate spawned by today’s income disparity, shortage of affordable housing, and continued unequal access to medical care.
For Riggin, the play’s defining line is given to Edna, who looks at her country and finds no place for her family: “My God, Joe,” she says, “the world is supposed to be for all of us.”
Riggin wanted to explore how a similar sense of alienation exists today. With the support of the Carroll School of Management’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, she commissioned new works from contemporary playwrights Melinda Lopez, Kate Snodgrass, and Sheri Wilner to create a 21st-century addendum to Lefty that she called Still Waiting. (The three one-acts respectively turn on workplace discrimination, a nurses’ strike, and the competition for entry-level blue-collar jobs.) The Winston Center also developed programing to frame the four-day production. This included, on October 11, a talk by Christine Chavez, a civil rights and labor advocate, who spoke about her late grandfather Cesar Chavez—his work as an organizer, his record of nonviolent protest—and recent political victories, including passage of California Assembly Bill 1066, which extended farmworker overtime pay. Chavez cited her grandfather’s famous words, “We don’t need perfect political systems. We need perfect participation.”
The following night, the Winston Center screened Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954) in Devlin Hall, a film with a feminist slant in which actual labor organizers and their families played lead parts in a story about striking miners. And just hours before the opening of Waiting for Lefty and Still Waiting, a roundtable discussion took place on the Robsham stage featuring political economist Barry Bluestone, author of Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business (1992); the United Steel Workers’ Donna Blythe-Shaw, an organizer since 1989; Massachusetts State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry ’96, who represents the disproportionately blue-collar First Suffolk District; and two Boston College professors, Marilynn Johnson (history) and David Twomey (business law and society). They placed the drama of Lefty in its historical moment and laid out the path of organized labor since the 1930s.
Bluestone explained that, in the 1950s and 1960s, labor unions enjoyed public support because they were seen to be “struggling not just for their own members but for the good of the entire working class.” Picking up the point, Blythe-Shaw encouraged a broader definition of organized labor. “The way I look at things,” she said, “every one of us in here is a worker. Unless you have independent means, you’re a worker.”
Later, Anabel Johnson ’20, who played Florrie in Waiting for Lefty, offered her interpretation. “The show is about more than unions,” she said. “It’s about how people have the power to change things, to vote, and to strike, and to live our lives the way we want to live them, rather than take the easy path.”
At the Friday evening production of Lefty, costumed in the suspenders and cuffed shirtsleeves of 1930s taxi drivers, or in the housedresses of their wives and coworkers (Riggin cast women to play traditionally male parts), the student actors argued, shouted, brooded, and fought among themselves. And at the conclusion, just as in 1935, the ensemble turned and faced the audience. With fists raised and voices hoarse, they cried, “Strike!” and the crowd applauded warmly.
Christopher Amenta is a Boston area writer.
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