'Waiting for Lefty' a timely workers' rights battle

“If big business got sentimental about human life,” argues a hardened industrialist early in Clifford Odets’ 1935 drama Waiting for Lefty, “there wouldn’t be big business of any sort!”

When Odets wrote Lefty, his first play to be produced, America was in the midst of the Great Depression. The suffering of the average American was savage, yet the moneyed leaders and capitalist powers, largely responsible for the country’s economic collapse, were rebounding, the rich getting richer as surely as the poor were starving on the streets.

That little has changed in the last 77 years is reason enough to take a fresh look at Lefty, a loosely connected series of dramatic vignettes set against a looming New York City taxi drivers’ strike. It’s the kind of play that Santa Rosa’s Imaginists Theatre Collective is especially committed to, theater with a strong social consciousness and a fierce demand for justice.

Directed by Brent Lindsay with a brutal lyricism that often feels like a live documentary, the fast-paced 65-minute show is occasionally uneven, but the rawness of the material is well served by the multiracial, multilingual company of actors.

The set-up is deceptively simple.

A contentious band of cab drivers argues the pros and cons of striking for better pay, all while waiting for their leader, Lefty, to arrive and lend his wisdom. What does his absence mean?

As the union’s communist-baiting president attempts to persuade the drivers that strikes are ineffective tools of red agitators, the workers take turns speaking up, and Odets raises the curtain on the lives of those who will be affected directly or indirectly by the strike: a driver whose wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t bring home more money, the girlfriend of a driver torn between her charming but poor lover and her disapproving family, a surgeon whose abrupt firing (cost-cutting issues) pushes her to take up cab-driving to see who else in the world is suffering.

The show is cast with a blind eye to gender or race, a trademark of the Imaginists, with several of Odets’ male roles transformed into females. Likewise, some Spanish-speaking actors tackle roles originally played by Italian or Polish actors, a sly shift of focus which feeds the powerful conclusion, as the cabbies join in chanting, “Our bones! Our blood! Workers of the world unite!”

The color of the cabbies’ skin may have changed since 1935, but the ongoing tension between profits and basic human dignity has not changed a bit.

‘Waiting for Lefty’ runs Thursday–Sunday through Sept. 23 at the Imaginists Theatre Collective. 461 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa. Thursday–Saturday, 8pm; Sunday matinee, 5pm. $15–$18. 707.528.7554.