‘Working’ rocks Black Lives Matter Plaza with a musical that matters

A gutsy and gifted project called Working in DC puts on an ebullient show to remind us of the everyday dignity of work.

You wouldn’t know it from Working, the upbeat musical being given an exultantly excellent production outdoors on Black Lives Matter Plaza, that the labor news these days is decidedly downbeat. The delta variant has put a damper on economic recovery, with less than a third of expected jobs created last month. More than 9 million workers lost pandemic unemployment benefits — on Labor Day of all days — with workers of color and mothers hit hardest. 

Against that grim background and in front of AFL-CIO headquarters — with the stunning scenic effect of its glass, marble and gold “Labor Is Life” mosaic mural visible through the windows — a gutsy and gifted project called Working in DC has put on an ebullient show to remind us of the everyday dignity of work. Not the stats about it. Not the policies that police it. Not the pay rates of it. The real-life first-person emotional and relational valuation of labor as experienced by workers themselves. A show about ordinary people’s search, as Studs Terkel put it in his introduction to Working (the 1974 book upon which the musical is based), “for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

What we do for a living, after all, is pretty central to who we be.

The stage and audience on Black Lives Matter Plaza for ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

So it was that on a seasonably pleasant Labor Day evening I sat in one of four rows of folding chairs, stone benches, and stools stretching in front of a playing space some 70 feet wide and took in what looked to be a set improvised of under-construction scaffolding and strung with literal work lights. The Grotowskian “poor theater” esthetic might be said to apply here, but more aptly this design seemed driven by dedication to take-it-to-the streets activism.

Indeed the stated goals of Working in DC, the producing collaborative, sound very little like a theater institution with a real estate footprint:

• Uplift the stories of the working class, highlight the dignity of work, and deepen the connection to the valuable identity of workers in America
• Utilize live theatre performance as a tool for civic engagement
• Honor front-line and essential workers through public performance
• Strengthen the relationship between the labor and arts sectors
• Highlight the history and current efforts of the labor movement
• Provide a platform for public interrogation of the value of work, labor justice, social and racial justice, and the state of labor justice in the arts.
• Bring DC residents from every ward and visitors from across the country to free, public, live events at Black Lives Matter Plaza September 3rd – 19th, 2021

Working, A Musical, based on actual oral histories, is a swiftly paced flow of catchy and touching songs interspersed with scenes that function as sharply drawn character sketches. The ensemble’s opening number, “All the Livelong Day,” sets the Whitmanesque tone: “I hear America singing.” And hear America we do, as the versatile cast of nine actor-singers portray some two dozen jobholders — from trucker to tech support, from grocery checker to iron worker, from community organizer to stone mason.

Emily Zinski in ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

Throughout are telling details of what life is like in the work world: The project manager’s droll distinction between her “OK boss” and her “Satan boss”…the delivery boy’s delight when a customer says,“Keep the change”…the full-of-himself hedge fund manager who believes “unless you have losers, you cannot have winners”…the fireman’s pride when he says, “I put out a fire, I helped save someone. I did something on this earth.”

Randyn Fullard, Chris Genebach, Jay Frisby, Thomas Adrian Simpson, and Carl L. Williams in ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

Everything is out in the open; backstage is basically upstage, where actors change costume pieces and pick up props when switching parts; an ample sound system carries the singers’ potent pipes perfectly clearly, along with the rousing band, likely all the way to Lafayette Park. The performance is public in every sense — a testament to the organizers’ foundational principle of radical hospitality, which extended ingeniously, the night I saw the show, to a voluble vox populi drop-in. 

Among the striking moments was when two character arcs were paired, connected in a way that brought out a larger meaning. A receptionist and a tech support worker, for instance, riff simultaneously on what they each do as communicators, and suddenly it gets meta. An elder care worker and a nanny sing a moving song together that resonates with parallel human dependency in infancy and old age. 

The sidewalk stage also rocks with eye-popping choreography, as when a waitress, singing a song in celebration of the art of what she does, leads a chorus of customers in a near show-stopping number. And there are visually striking directorial touches as when a cleaning lady’s song is backed up by other women miming the wiping of a window, a housewife is accompanied by other mothers cradling blankets as babies, a millworker’s song is framed by two factory shadow plays. 

Alexandra Palting, Theresa Cunningham, Emily Zinski, and Alyssa Keegan in ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

Working, A Musical, playing at Black Lives Plaza for only two more weekends, is the sort of truthful theater that may prompt one to reflect on one’s own truth — the experience of one’s own workaday work life.  It’s also the sort of honest theater that makes plain the work it took to make it. After months of pandemic-imposed unemployment in the theater community, this outdoor production is a bold showcase of arts workers at work — which Working in DC is explicit about:

Our core leadership team is … interested in dismantling the hierarchy of the traditional producing model in theatre. We are passionate arts makers guided by principles of transparency, joy, anti-oppression, anti-racism, and collective leadership. We hope to create a sustainable model that re-imagines the future of the arts in America.

The cast of ‘Working, a Musical.’ Photo courtesy of Working in DC.

As one character says during the show: “History is a hell of a lot of little people getting together and deciding they want a better life.” The entire entertaining evening was a vivid dramatization of that point. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Working, A Musical presented by Working in DC runs weekends September 3 to 19, 2021, outdoors at 815 Black Lives Matter Plaza, Washington, DC. Tickets (free or by donation) are available online. Seating is general admission.

SEE ALSO:
Labor Day event to celebrate dignity of work and challenge inequity in theater

CREDITS

WORKING, a Musical
From the book by STUDS TERKEL
Adapted by STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and NINA FASO
With Additional contributions by Gordan Greenberg
Songs by: CRAIG CARNELIA, MICKI GRANT, LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, MARY ROGERS and SUSAN BIRKENHEAD, STEPHEN SCHWARTZ & JAMES TAYLOR
New Orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire

SONGS

ALL THE LIVELONG DAY | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (with acknowledgments to Walt Whitman)
Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker) and Ensemble

DELIVERY | Music and Lyrics by Lin–Manuel Miranda
Randyn Fullard (as Freddy Rodriguez, Fast Food Worker)

I’M JUST MOVIN’ | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Emily Zinksi (as Babe Secoli, Grocery Checker) and other Checkers

BROTHER TUCKER | Music and Lyrics by James Taylor
Carl L. Williams (as Frank Decker, Interstate Trucker)

JUST A HOUSEWIFE | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Alexandra Palting (as Kate Rushton, Housewife) and other Housewives

MILLWORK | Music and Lyrics by James Taylor
Alyssa Keegan (as Grace Clements, Millworker)

IF I COULD’VE BEEN | Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Ensemble

THE MASON | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Jay Frisby (as Anthony Coelho, Stone Mason)

IT’S AN ART | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Alyssa Keegan (as Delores Dante, Waitress) and Customers

JOE | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Thomas Adrian Simpson (as Joe Zutty, Retiree)

A VERY GOOD DAY | Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Jay Frisby (as Utkarsh Trajillo, Elder Care Worker) and Alexandra Palting (as Theresa Liu, Nanny)

CLEANIN’ WOMEN | Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Theresa Cunningham (as Maggie Holmes, Cleaning Lady) and other Cleaning Women

FATHERS AND SONS | Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker)

SOMETHING TO POINT TO | Music and Lyrics by Craig Carnelia
Chris Genebach (as Mike Dillard, Ironworker) and Ensemble

CHARACTERS
Mike Dillard, Ironworker – Chris Genebach
Amanda McKenny, Project Manager – Theresa Cunningham
Freddy Rodriguez, Fast Food Worker – Randyn Fullard
Rex Winship, Hedge Fund Manager – Thomas Adrian Simpson
Babe Secoli, Grocery Checker – Emily Zinksi
Terry Mason, Flight Attendant – Alyssa Keegan
Frank Decker, Interstate Trucker – Carl L. Williams
Johnnie, Tech Support – Randyn Fullard
Sharon Atkins, Receptionist – Emily Zinksi
Kate Rushton, Housewife – Alexandra Palting
Conrad Swibel, Mail Delivery Man – Jay Frisby
Roberta Victor, Prostitute (sex worker) – Randyn Fullard & Emily Zinski
Candy Cottingham, Fundraiser – Thomas Adrian Simpson & Theresa Cunningham
Grace Clements, Millworker – Alyssa Keegan
Allen Epstein, Community Organizer – Chris Genebach & Carl L. Williams
Anthony Coelho, Stone Mason – Jay Frisby
Eddie Jaffe, Publicist – Thomas Adrian Simpson
Delores Dante, Waitress – Alyssa Keegan
Joe Zutty, Retiree – Thomas Adrian Simpson
Tom Patrick, Fireman – Chris Genbach
Utkarsh Trajillo, Elder Care Worker – Jay Frisby
Theresa Liu, Nanny – Alexandra Palting
Maggie Holmes, Cleaning Lady – Theresa Cunningham
Ralph Werner, Student – Randyn Fullard
Charlie Blossom, Ex-Newsroom Assistant – Emily Zinksi

CAST
Theresa Cunningham
Jay Frisby
Randyn Fullard
Chris Genebach
Alyssa Keegan
Alexandra Palting
Thomas Adrian Simpson
Carl L. Williams
Emily Zinski
Emily Erickson (Swing)
Emmanuel Elliot Key (Swing)

STAGE MANAGEMENT
Karen Currie – Stage Manager
Joey Blakely – Production Assistant
Kate Wander – Production Assistant /COVID Officer
Tiffany Ko – Costume/Production Assistant

PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT
Jenn Schwartz – Production Manager
Ryan Love – Technical Director

CREW
John Nolan
Rachel Prell
Ashley Wagoner

CREATIVE
Shanara Gabrielle – Director
Ashleigh King – Choreographer
William Yanesh – Music Director

DESIGN
Andrew Cohen – Scenic
Moyenda Kulemeka – Costumes
Justin Schmitz – Sound
Alberto Segarra – Lighting
Minjoo Kim – Assistant Lighting
Jordan Ealey – Dramaturg

MUSICIANS
Manny Arciniega – Percussion
Matthew Schleigh – Guitar
Jason Wilson – Bass

CORE TEAM
Shanara Gabrielle – Lead Collaborator; Artistic Producer
Trés McMichael – Social Accountability & Partnerships Director; Associate Producer
Jake Bridges – Development Director; Associate Producer
Mallory Miller – Events & Operations Coordinator
Jorge Acevedo – Casting Director & Artistic Advisor
Quoc Tran – Administrative Coordinator
Katerina Moser – Marketing & Communications Intern
Isabella Benning – Social Media Management Intern
and Ms. Elise Bryant, Executive Director of Labor Heritage Foundation

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John Stoltenberg is currently interim editor in chief of DC Metro Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

1 COMMENT

  1. Wow! What an achievement! And a great story. I hope this gets picked up for an indoor theatrical production, with the same cast but a longer run. Thank you, John, for writing this! Ravelle B.

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