Work and Play(s)


The Department of Labor's "Books that Shaped Work in America" project is now in its third year, an ever-growing compendium of the literature that has influenced the way Americans think about work and, in some cases, spurred direct action to improve the lives of America's working people.

But in those three years, the literature of the theater -- that is, plays -- has been underrepresented on our list. That's too bad, because there is a special urgency and intimacy in the theater that gives it the power to provoke radical change. The history of the American theater is closely woven into the history of American labor.

During the tumultuous early years of the labor movement, the voices of workers often found their expression in the theater. During the Great Depression, when Frances Perkins and President Roosevelt were shepherding in sweeping labor reforms, actors and playwrights were dramatizing the plight of workers in intimate and insightful ways.

One of the plays that premiered during this time is Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, a wildly popular series of vignettes focused on poverty and worker exploitation. Waiting for Lefty is one of four plays that have been added to the list after I asked my very talented colleague Egan Reich, who is also a playwright and screenwriter, to make recommendations.

Before that, our list had only three plays: The Pittsburgh Cycle, Death of a Salesman, and A Raisin in the Sun. That isn't quite true. The Pittsburgh Cycle, recommended by Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, is in fact 10 plays. The plays, by August Wilson, depict the history of the 20th century through the lens of the African-American experience, with all but one of the plays taking place in Pittsburgh's Hill District. Each play tells a story from a different decade of the century, opening a window into both their struggles as well as what inspires and sustains them.

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman was recommended by Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith. Perhaps the most famous and enduring portrait of work onstage, the play introduced America and the world to Willy Loman, a depleted and delusional patriarch who is forced to confront his own lack of importance and financial success after 40 years as a traveling salesman. In one heartbreaking plea, ("Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.") Willy's widow Linda strikes to the core of our shared duty to respect the dignity of working people.

The illusions of the American Dream are revealed in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway. A story of a family's struggle for fair housing opportunity in Chicago, A Raisin in the Sun lays bare the deep divisions entrenched at the time in every aspect of American community, including work. It was recommended by Kathy M. Newman,
an associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

In addition to Waiting for Lefty, Egan adds David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Tony Kushner's Angels in America and Anna Deavere Smith's "Let Me Down Easy." These plays show that over the decades, theater remains a potent force in workplace culture and workplace policy. It does so in ways that are sometimes direct, but at other times impossible to measure. Joined by members of our community in a darkened theater, we feel tiny shifts in our attitudes about who we believe ourselves to be. We act on those attitudes, and -- as we struggle to make life better for working families -- we shape the future.