Clifford Odets co-founded The Group in 1931, a theatre of authentic, blue collar social justice, that focused on ethnic diversity and the misery of the working class. In 1935, Waiting for Lefty burst on the scene, an immersive piece that drops us smack in the fray of a union meeting, illustrated by vignettes of various members. One of Clifford Odets’ great strengths is avoiding abstract rhetoric in favor of vivid, literal illumination. It was his first professional production, and a rousing success. In the same vein, Upstart Productions has revived this call to action, in a warehouse not far from Fair Park, offering Pay What You Want, and a stirring theatrical event. In these days of tumultuous political debate, it’s encouraging to find some brave, raw, confrontational theatre to quench our famished souls.
Waiting for Lefty begins with a lot of bitching and commotion: taxi driver’s wages are ridiculously low, what are we gonna do, where’s Lefty, this sort of thing. Testosterone and tempers are running high, and Odets has a gift for pyrotechnical, fierce, poetic dialogue. The first cut away from the core plot is a wrenching scrap between Joe and Edna. Edna’s trying to make their home work on a shrinking budget and Joe’s walking a tightrope between long hours and keeping a job during the Depression. There’s no quaint humor behind their desperate bickering. It helps a little to understand they wouldn’t be fighting so hard if they didn’t care. Then there’s the medical intern struggling with the specter of antisemitism. His devotion to his patients (however destitute) is heart-breaking. There’s a scientist tempted by an extravagant salary to spy on a colleague. An unemployed actor gets wind of a political meeting by a savvy receptionist.
The exhilarating, empowering idea that informs Waiting for Lefty is finding the moxie to defy corruption. The refusal to participate in your own diminishment and oppression. Time and again the characters are asked to forfeit their humanity in the midst of poverty and gnawing hunger. We understand all too well the leverage of those in control, how they try to fob off capitalism as the moral high-ground, as the be-all and end-all of western civilization. Odets exposes this sham with cogent mastery. His language is rough, pugilistic and utterly convincing. When the underprivileged and ill-used rise to haul open the doors and march against intolerance and exploitation, the drumming pounds in our ears, long after the show has ended.
Upstart Productions (with Ash Studios) presents Waiting for Lefty, playing March 15th-April 1st, 2017. 3203 Ash Lane, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-923-3619. www.upstarttheater.com.