Ubuntu's Waiting For Lefty
By Lou Fancher
Take a politically awkward position and be thankful for theater groups lacking permanent homes and grateful for America’s longstanding exploitation of blue-collar workers. Without them, there might be no Ubuntu Theater Project or playwright Clifford Odets' 1935 play Waiting For Lefty.
Oakland's Ubuntu, a diverse collective of Bay Area actors and MFA artists from the University of California San Diego, has spent the summer months presenting their third season of four plays in nontraditional spaces. The company performed Marcus Gardley’s Dance of the Holy Ghosts at Oakland City Church, Tarrel McCraney’s The Brothers Size at Dana Meyer Auto Care in Albany, and George Brant’s Grounded in an airplane hangar at the Oakland Aviation Museum.
Lefty, Odets’ classic play about taxi cab drivers planning a labor strike, receives a recalibrated, respectful treatment in the concrete-and-cars environment of Classic Cars West just off Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. Audiences entering the auto shop through the gated doorway pass by a smoky black ’53 Cadillac, a spiffy red convertible Corvette, an E-Type Jaguar 4.2, a vintage Ford Mustang with the inscrutable but intriguing license plate “MIK CODE” and more. Leaning or sitting near the vehicles, actors pose like mannequins in resigned, downtrodden postures, their arms folded, chins lowered, spines slumped into worn-out curves. The smell of motor oil occasionally wafts through the high-ceilinged industrial space.
With circular seating on benches and chairs, the theater-in-the-round setting creates instant atmosphere. A simple, rhythmical beat, created by actors’ feet stamping the floor and hands slapping their thighs or the benches they share with audience members, marks the play’s beginning as physically immersive. Here and throughout, it’s captivating to not just watch and listen to the actors, but to feel their actual movements. When they later rush as a mad mob in pursuit of a “spy” sent into their precariously formed coalition — or a wife shoves against the chest of a husband she considers cowardly — people in the audience shift, flinch, and lean back as if to avoid direct contact.
It’s a terrific parallel to the history of a 20th-century playwright who was an original member of Group Theatre in New York. Trained in the “method acting” technique conceived by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski and developed by Group Theater director Lee Strasberg, Odets and his peers connected to characters through personal emotions, actual experiences, and “sense memories” that led to realistic portrayals. In the auto shop, seated among the actors, often close enough to reach out and touch them, their struggles are our struggles; their pain, our pain.
Directors Emilie Whelan and Michael Socrates Moran recast the play’s story as a “cultural memory,” according to program notes, but there’s no fiddling with the internal dynamics. A “bourgeois town” lament, sung in unison, dissolves momentarily as a union representative who’s no more than a mouthpiece for the exploitive employer tries to convince the workers that he’s leading the charge to better wages and privileges. Having none of it, they chant “We want Lefty,” calling for a character who never appears but represents their radical hopes. His offstage murder is the impetus for the workers’ eventual strike at the end of the play.
Between the play’s end caps that highlight the solidarity of working men and women, tightly structured scenes of fracture show how quickly economic disparity unravels the seams of marriages, friendships and families. Edna and Joe argue bitterly over their children’s health; soon escalating into the real dispute over mistrust. Fayette pressures Miller to accept a raise, but the sweet offer becomes bitter with terms that he sneak insider information to the bosses and aid in the secret manufacture of poison gas. A less successfully acted scene has an elderly Dr. Barnes reluctantly firing (at the hospital’s insistence) the young Dr. Benjamin, a member of the taxi union. Over-played anger, under-emphasized remorse and costume designer Luther Spratt’s choice to leave the doctors in sleeveless tank tops and suspenders — one actor’s tattoos a distracting element — is a rare strikeout and the scene’s nuance is diminished. It’s a minor misstep and perhaps the crucial scene will reach its potential for richness after opening night.
The production pivots rapidly back into crisp focus as Agate climbs atop the wooden table and the casts’ whispered “strike” builds into shouts. A return to the opening “bourgeois town” is no longer a lament, seen in the light of the power of the people.
The cast is overall strong, with Whelan (Edna), Terrance White (Joe), Sean McIntyre (Agate) and Britney Frazier (Florrie) delivering performances notable for their honesty and depth. Music during scene transitions is an effective balm and renders the episodic structure seamless. Lefty requires a large cast and is rarely performed. Don’t miss this show — a unique location, fine acting and the work of one of America’s arguably greatest playwrights add up to a most worthwhile outing.