Two weeks ago my sweetie and I went to see Pig Iron Theatre’s most recent piece that was a part of this year’s Live Arts Festival. I have to admit that I rarely go to plays–I’ve been to more plays in the past year with Noah than the 5 years before that, all inspired by him. Of the ones I’ve seen, Pig Iron has been by far my favorite.
A story about Joe Hill and the history of the IWW by my favorite theater troupe seemed like it’d top anything I’d seen yet. I’m sad to say though that Sweet By and By was a pretty big disappointment. Jeff Hornstein, an organizer at SEIU Local 32BJ and colleague of mine through work, was there with his wife Pamela and in our discussion afterwards summed it up best: The play wasn’t about collectivity, it was about despair. In the end of the story, the character gives up on the American union and returns to Sweden. There’s not even any complexity to the character’s decision. The film is very didactic and literal with little use of nuances or subtleness.
The positive part, which is a striking uniqueness of Pig Iron plays, is their innovative visuals. The most striking one was when the actor burned a piece of paper on stage that burned it into a shape of a heart. They also used a panel of envelopes to project images onto. The character interacted with this panel throughout the play using the envelopes as innovative props on the sparse set (including as the mouth of “the boss” which was pretty funny.)
I would love to see more art that doesn’t just romanticize labor unions of the past. I feel like most people think of them as a historic and dated way of coming together because of the portrayal of unions in film, tv, and theater. Until I got involved in the kind of work I do, I knew little about modern day unions outside of the Teamsters and the stories of corruption you hear in the news. Meanwhile, the reality in Philadelphia is that SEIU had a historic win in Philadelphia this time last year, and the Security Officers Union with Jobs with Justice won large pay increases and benefits for guards at U Penn and Temple campuses. Where are those modern stories to show people another successful collective shifting of power that is possible in this country?