It’s often forgotten in the whirlwind of grilled hot dogs and sparklers but Labor Day was originally meant to celebrate well…labor and the hard working folks who perform it. So this year along with the mandatory barbecue and fireworks show, consider brushing up on the history of the workers movement with one of the following films. (And remember to tip your server!)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Directed by John Ford and based on John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath recounts the story of the Joad family. After losing their farm in Oklahoma during the Great Depression, the Joads make an arduous journey across the west to California where they become migrant workers-and find their troubles have just begun. Starring Henry Fonda and John Carradine, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two including Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and Best Director for Ford. It’s also widely considered one of the best movies ever made.
How Green Was My Valley (1941) Based on the Richard Llewellyn novel of the same name, this is the epic chronicle of the Morgan family. The Morgans are a hard scrabble close knit clan living in South Wales where the family members work in the coalfields. Over time disputes between the mine’s owners and workers as well as environmental despoliation from the coalfields tear apart the family and destroy the once idyllic village in which they’ve lived. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor.
Norma Rae (1979) Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae tells how its title character (played by the indomitable Sally Field) becomes a union organizer at the local textiles firm after her health and that of her co-workers is compromised. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two including Best Original Song and Best Actress; prompting Field’s immortal “You like me! You really like me!” acceptance speech for her second Oscar win for Places in the Heart. That quote was, in fact, a reference to dialogue in Norma Rae.
Silkwood (1983) Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, directed by Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Graduate) and starring Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell, inspired by the life of Karen Silkwood. Silkwood was a nuclear whistleblower and union activist who died under extremely suspicious circumstances at the same time she was investigating alleged criminal behavior the plutonium plant where she worked. Silkwood was nominated for five Academy awards including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay
Made in Dagenham (2010) Directed by Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) Made in Dagenham tells the true story of the Ford Sewing Machinists strike in 1968. The strike was prompted by sexual discrimination against its female employees who demanded equal pay. Starring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike it was nominated for four BAFTA awards including best supporting actress for Richardson and Outstanding British Film.
Top photo: Bigstock
While I grant that culture depicted here is relatively unknown to me, I don’t for a minute attribute my opinion of the play’s success to novelty. Author Quiara Alegria Hudes’s detailed, multicultural characterization and unexpected plot lines make the bar setting an apt canvas rather than a cliché. There isn’t a false, pandering, or extra word. The piece is lively, humorous, dramatic and affecting.
Hudes, it should be noted, won a Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. The latter was directed by Thomas Kail, responsible for both Hamilton and this new work.
Daphne’s North Philly Bar/Lounge is the kind of old fashioned, neighborhood watering hole patronized by family and odd ducks for whom the place is a second home. Sentences begun by one are finished by others, jokes are “in”, history is shared. Owned by its grounded, wry, Puerto-Rican namesake (Vanessa Aspillaga), as is the rundown building housing questionable tenants, Daphne’s welcomes a core of regulars including:
Vanessa Aspillaga and Matt Saldivar
Struggling artist, Pablo (Matt Saldivar), currently a dumpster-diver in service of paintings depicting the discard of people’s lives; Jenn (KK Moggie), a passionate and literally colorful activist with a self avowed ‘Messiah Complex,’; and, Rey (Gordon Joseph Weiss), a middle-aged, hippie motorcyclist who picks up physical labor to support his travels- though completely credible, the least well realized participant. Daphne’s sister Inez (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who married a community-minded, up-and-coming businessman and her husband Acosta (Carlos Gomez) are also omnipresent. These two are economically better off and geographically better situated, yet loyal and generous.
Vanessa Aspillaga and Samira Wiley
When an upstairs apartment is raided by police and DEA who cart off drugs, guns and its inhabitants, the tenants’ 11 year-old daughter, Ruby (Samira Wiley), jumps out a window. She’s found, bruised and cowering, behind the building. Daphne first shelters then reluctantly adopts the emotionally broken girl, but, in essence, Ruby acquires six parents. Over a period of 17 years, framed by the Ruby’s informing us how old she is at the start of each scene, fates, relationships, and some personalities radically alter.
Jenn, whom Ruby identifies as her only honest friend (Jenn has no boundaries), grows increasingly more radical and then unhinged in her attempts to raise awareness about the state of the world. Both Ruby and Daphne develop strong, unforseen bonds with her. Acosta rises in politics eventually yielding to proffered temptations, risking his marriage. Ruby becomes a smart, enthusiastic student, yet her underpinnings are shakier than what’s publicly apparent; she eventually makes a surprising choice. Painful secrets about Daphne and Inez indirectly relate to Ruby. Pablo achieves a kind of fame, yet stays his course. Rey is Rey.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Vanessa Aspillaga
At an hour forty-five with no intermission, one never feels restless. Director Thomas Kail keeps flow consistent and smooth. Lights dim; evocative piano music by Michel Camilo is heard with such pristine clarity it seems to get inside one (Sound Design – Nevin Steinberg), an efficient swarm of stagehands adjust Donyale Werle’s splendid, weathered Set.
Physical acting adds insight. Pablo is graceful in his skin, while Jenn’s natural eurhythmy seems provoked. Daphne is always aware of gravity. Acosta carries himself with calm confidence. Inez moves in spurts. Ruby is defensive. Ray lolls. Kail serves a cast who knows how to listen, utilizing his staging area with authenticity and creativity. Small business illuminates, the creation of banners and tending to a symbolic plant work particularly well. A parentheses of dancing captivates.
Matt Saldivar, Samira Wiley, Carlos Gomez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gordon Joseph Weiss
Costume Design (and, one presumes, wigs) by Toni-Leslie James suit place, people, period, and status. Representation of Pablo’s artfully insouciant combinations and Jenn’s various off-the-wall ensembles is inspired.
Vanessa Aspillaga’s Daphne bears a palpable undercurrent of emotion and power that serves as ballast. When she briefly erupts later in the piece, disclosure has all the more effect.
KK Moggie first manifests Jenn as an insubstantial, well meaning spirit, then shepherds her evolution into someone obsessed. The actress might be a bit more frightening.
Carlos Gomez (Acosta) exudes sympathetic warmth and masculinity. Daphne Rubin-Vega (Inez), a thoroughly appealing Matt Saldivar (Pablo), and Gordon Joseph Weiss (Rey) feel completely genuine.
Samira Wiley’s Ruby is always sure the earth will open up beneath her feet. Wisely the actress delivers an unaffected 11 year-old. As the character grows to maturity, Wiley increasingly lets her inhabit her skin. This includes subtle signs of increased alcohol use and volatility. Well performed.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Gordon Joseph Weiss, Matt Saldivar, KK Moggie, Samira Wiley
Signature Theatre presents
Daphne’s Dive by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Thomas Kail
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre in The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 12, 2016