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Organizing History in the Alliance Theatre’s Working: A Musical

In May 2021, the Alliance Theatre produced a concert version of Working: A Musical in an outdoor tent in Atlanta, Georgia. The production adapted the original musical by Stephen Swartz and Nina Faso to include new material created from interviews with sixty-two workers and community organizers in Atlanta. In the midst of a pandemic and reckoning for racial justice, and in the aftermath of a presidential election, the Alliance’s creative and engagement team set out to make a community-engaged production whose process both modeled grassroots organizing and told the story of the work of organizers in the city.

Working: A Musical premiered on Broadway in 1978 and is based on a best-selling book of oral histories about the American working class written by Studs Terkel. The original book and musical register the left-leaning ethos of the 1970s by foregrounding the stories of ordinary people told in their own words. Historians refer to this as a “bottom-up” approach to history, when the sources are not at the top of social or political power structures that tend to dominate historical production.

The musical is a compilation of monologues and songs for characters defined by profession or line of work, e.g. “Millworker,” “Teacher,” “Truck Driver.” By design, the structure is porous and fragmented and holds content together thematically rather than through linear plot progression. This form allows the musical to seamlessly absorb additions and changes to the original work. Over the past four decades, the monologues and songs have shifted as certain professions became obsolete and new types of work, and workers, became part of our reality (most notably, the 2012 version of Working included two new songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda that provided a much needed multicultural, multilingual update).

Few plays are as ripe for historiography—the process of writing/making history—as Working. Its fragmented structure based on oral histories have made it an unusually iterative musical. Any director or theatre company that picks it up tends to do so because it promises an opportunity to interject new meaning into the conversation about what it means to work, and what matters now.

“It’s a perfect vehicle for examining both our past and our present moment, and how those things are not that different,” says Tamilla Woodard, who directed the Alliance’s recent version of the musical. Woodard and the creative team at the Alliance, myself included, sought to realize an Atlanta-specific dialogue through the musical by interviewing Atlantans and fashioning their stories into new monologues, a song, and a sound design.

Our attention was focused on two areas of work: first, frontline and essential workers who kept the city running during a pandemic (and equally those who lost their jobs because of it), and second, the work of community organizers. The latter was particularly important for many of us at the theatre. We had just witnessed a tremendous voter mobilization effort in and outside Atlanta around the 2020 election that had propelled Atlanta into the national spotlight as the state of Georgia “turned blue” and elected a president and two senators from the Democratic Party. Stacy Abrams and her organization Fair Fight became household names and we knew that the eyes of the nation were on the city.

Abrams was but one person among the very many who did their bit to organize in Atlanta. We saw a need to recognize organizers and activists as “workers” and celebrate their contributions to the city. And this positioning was both purposeful and timely in response to the accusations of voter fraud that tried to disqualify organizer’s efforts and demeaning labels of hooliganism surrounding Black Lives Matter protests.

As a result, the Atlanta version of Working featured a new monologue and song about organizing and elevated the stories of Atlanta’s organizing community and their place in history, imbuing new life to the notion of “bottom-up” history that Terkel originally championed.

We saw a need to recognize organizers and activists as “workers” and celebrate their contributions to the city.

Organizing as Method

The production of Working was envisioned as a concert staging in an outdoor tent with minimal movement between actors and a minimalistic set that included plexiglass partitions between actors—all necessary, Equity-approved pivots due of COVID-19. Within these conditions, the creative team focused predominantly on sound to create texture and dimension, and the localization of the musical became chiefly aural.

In addition to new monologues and a song, Woodard’s concept was to create an audio design, with the support of Swartz and his team, of voices from real Atlanta citizens that fit into the nooks and crannies between the play’s original monologues and songs. In specific moments the actors would also take on the words of community members, dissolving the boundaries between the “play” and the new Atlanta-focused material.

Woodard also wanted a community chorus to participate in the opening and ending numbers in the play. Because of COVID-19 and Equity regulations, we decided to record singers individually, remix their voices, and pipe the chorus into the tent to amplify the actors during each song.

The team established two methods for collecting stories: scheduled Zoom interviews with candidates for new monologues and songs and a self-recording option to crowdsource as many stories as possible and vocals for the opening and closing numbers.

For the self-recording option, Woodard created a tool that we all started to refer to as “Mad Libs”—a few one-page scripts that community members could download from the Alliance’s website and respond to by filling in the blanks with their unique answers. The Mad Libs differed slightly based on occupation and role, e.g. general, teachers, delivery and food service workers, youth with part-time jobs. But the core idea was that a fill-in format of a Mad Lib would allow the editing team to easily layer voices and create a fuller representation of the citizens, workers, and organizers of Atlanta.

With a collection structure in place, we sought buy-in from the community to help us source the self-recordings and interviews. For almost a year, I had built a relationship with the labor liaison for United Way of Greater Atlanta, Lydia Glaize, and her work became instrumental in community engagement for Working. Glaize introduced us to many of the major labor organizations in Atlanta and advocated for the importance of a musical that amplified the voices of workers and labor. Through Glaize’s network we were able to connect with, and interview, workers from various unions in the city, including Rideshare Union Local 404, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, along with union workers in retail and aerospace industries.

A little over one hundred community members participated in the production, including sixty-two workers and organizers. Participants included staff at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel and Atlanta Marriott, Willy’s Mexicana Grill, Piedmont Hospital, and Northside Hospital, and organizers with local organizations such as Southern Fried Queer Pride, Asian American Journalist Association, Galeo, the Empowered Readers Literacy Project, Shadow Warrior Foundation, and Racial Justice Action Center. A nonprofit that teaches youth music, How Big Is Your Dream, had ten youngsters record as part of the chorus.

Woodard’s concept was to create an audio design, with the support of Swartz and his team, of voices from real Atlanta citizens that fit into the nooks and crannies between the play’s original monologues and songs.

In practice, we didn’t always get the stories we thought we would. It was difficult to find unemployed individuals despite sobering statistics about the loss of jobs in sectors such as hospitality. Rather than being “unemployed,” many people had pivoted and reimagined their work. We heard from a musician and music promoter whose industry had been devastated but was thankful that Uber/Lyft provided a flexible way to earn money to support his family. We heard from a partially retired retail employee who leaned into her artistic skillset to start a mask-making business. One of the best stories of resilience came from our own community of cultural workers. Faced with sudden unemployment, Bridget McCarthy started a nonprofit, the Artist Relief Fund, to support Atlanta cultural works through a tough year. Her words are spoken by one of the actors in the play.

The self-recording method of collecting proved difficult to execute, and we saw little to no uptake. At various stages we adjusted its messaging and format, including creating an online form that participants could fill out to ease access. Despite these changes, mass solicitations fell on deaf ears.

However, we did see traction in the personal connections made with interviewees. Toward the end of the period of sourcing material we pivoted exclusively to in-person Zoom interviews and events to record community members and singers. We would interview one participant and ask them to connect us to three others, essentially creating a network into the community that extended beyond our reach.

This took a lot more work than we had initially anticipated. It also modeled grassroots tactics of community organizing. “Basic organizing 101 is one on one communication. It’s that house visit,” says Deborah Scott, one of our interviewees and a widely recognized and respected veteran of voter mobilization efforts in Georgia. “We need more moments where everyday people recognize that somebody listened to [them]. Somebody asked [them] a question and waited for [their] response. And they heard [them]…. It is important that we continue this exercise in hearing each other.”

Organizing History

Deborah Scott and her organization, Georgia STAND-UP, work directly with Black working communities in Atlanta. Their voter education work is tied to community and economic development, which she calls “pocketbook issues” and “kitchen-table issues” that impact “Ms. Jackson and Ms. Johnson.”

“We can’t talk about being in Georgia and about the value of work and the value of workers without subconsciously or consciously understanding that Georgia was formerly a slave state,” says Scott. “The wages are still depressed. It’s not just a different living wage, it’s a lower living wage.”

Georgia is one of two states with the lowest minimum wage in the United States ($5.15 compared to $7.25, the federal minimum wage). While Georgia has routinely been selected as the “number one state to do business,” this economic expansion has not translated to equitable job growth. Over the past seven years, the city of Atlanta has consistently ranked number one in income inequality—and, not surprisingly, this maps along racial lines.

They saw in Working that change was possible, that hate and prejudice could be erased, and that livelihoods could improve. Organizers, not surprisingly, are driven by possibility.

Atlanta has never been particularly friendly toward working people, but it also has a different side. Lauded as a “Black Mecca” and taking great pride in its Black leadership, the city has worked hard to undo the (ongoing) history of inequality and segregation. And much of this work occurs outside capitol buildings through boots-on-the-ground community organizing.

The combined history of suppressed wages and suppressed representation for Black communities drove Scott to organizing. “[It’s] why we need to make sure people get registered to vote. And that’s why we need to stand up for workers and stand up for communities... to make sure that they can trade up for their families.”

Actress Tawana Montgomery playing Deborah Scott. Photo credit: Greg Mooney

Actress Tawana Montgomery playing Deborah Scott. Photo credit: Greg Mooney

Scott’s interview and story became the center of the production and a raison d’être. Scott brought activism and labor together into a lifetime of work. Her five strategies—rise up, stand up, build up, trade up, show up—became the backbone of a new song, “5 Things,” written by Kristian Bush, Brandon Bush, and Carlos Andres Gomez. Her story of self-discovery and first taste of victory as an activist, fighting to extend public transportation into working-class neighborhoods in Clayton County, is captured in a monologue that leads into the song.

Community Reception

On 5 May 2020, interview participants in Working gathered together to watch a community performance of the play at the Woodruff Arts Center. The following day I interviewed Scott and another labor activist, Eric Richardson, for an Alliance podcast episode to ask them about their impressions.

“What’s unique about this [production] and wonderful about it is that you get to hear each other’s stories,” reflects Richardson, president of the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists. “Communication is key to healing our society.”

While neither Scott nor Richardson thought the situation for workers had improved since the 1970s—on the contrary, they said that in many ways it was worse today—the musical struck a hopeful note for them. They saw in Working that change was possible, that hate and prejudice could be erased, and that livelihoods could improve. Organizers, not surprisingly, are driven by possibility.

“Some folks have tried to divide us by ignorance, by not knowing,” adds Richardson. “But the more we communicate... We realize we’re the same, we’re just in different capacities. Then we can be more unified not just as a city, but as a nation. And eventually the world, because we're not in a silo.”

If the original Working from the 1970s was a focus on “voices from below”—scoring a history of unseen and undervalued labor outside elite systems—the 2020 Atlanta version spoke across past, present, and future. It was ancestral and intergenerational, embodying a deep sense of community, across generations, that grounds the work of organizations like Georgia STAND-UP.

In the interplay between the original material and the new Atlanta material, Scott heard a conversation about upward mobility and sacrifice between generations. “I love that monologue that talks about the domestic workers where the character doesn’t want their daughter to make beds,” she says. “That really spoke to me.”

The dialogue between past, present, and future was not a narrative of progress as much as a focus on the communal aspect of how and why change occurs. “I wonder if my grandmother and my great-grandmother would have imagined seeing their granddaughter, great-granddaughter portrayed on the stage talking about working-family issues?” asks Scott. “I don’t think so. As they say, we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams.”

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