A Marxist Philistine Gets Woke to Theater


Peter Rachleff is a history professor who specializes in U.S. labour, Immigration and African-American history. Along with his wife Beth, he operates the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. He is a long-time activist and has a strongly developed interest In the world of theater, some of which he details in this article, about his awakening as a theater advocate. —Mike Wangen

For much of my youth, I swore by a line that a friend attributed to a character in a Godard film: “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.” I never did see the movie. But I swore by the line, from college to graduate school, as I dug ever more deeply into Marxism. And I kept my distance from live theater.

In 1982 I moved to Saint Paul and began teaching U.S. history—labor, African American, and immigration history—at Macalester College. I dove into the local labor movement with both feet, and I continued to research and write about the intersections of race and class. And I continued to ignore theater.

In the early 1990s, my resolve began to soften. Two labor movement comrades introduced me to the power of children’s puppet theater to tell stories of exploitation, resistance, and solidarity. The youthful participants were moved; the audiences were moved; and I was moved. I was beginning a new journey. With two more experiences, the veils fell from my eyes. On the heels of the nationwide UPS strike in the summer of 1997, Beth Cleary shaped and directed a production of Waiting for Lefty at Macalester College. She brought UPS strikers to meet with her cast, and she complicated the play by making its historic white maleness an issue raised by the discontented rank-and-file. She cast women and actors of color in key roles. She also prefaced the play with short plays by African-American writers Langston Hughes and H.V. Edwards and her own adaptation of Meridel LeSueur’s short story, “Women on the Breadlines.” And she ended the play with a Mother Jones character leading the audience in “Solidarity Forever.” Audience members, from labor activists to students, rose, joined hands, and sang. That same year I fell under the spell of Wendy Knox’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play. Wendy’s lead actor quit the night before opening, and she re-cast a woman, Bianca Pettis, in the male lead role, and she went on with script in hand. Even in these circumstances—or was it because of these circumstances—I was captivated. In reimagining Lincoln’s assassination, Parks, the cast, the production, asked us to reconsider “the great (w)hole of history.” And I/we did, night after night.

I was realizing how badly I had missed the boat. Theater was—is—a vehicle to tackle the complexities of race and class, of gender and power, of exploitation and resistance, and it is a collaborative enterprise, among the creative team and between the creative team and the audience. When it works right, I should add. And when it works right, everyone grows, new connections are made and imaginations are fired. We can imagine birthing a new world from the ashes of the old.

Once I became woke to the power of theater, I took advantage of every opportunity I could find to explore it. Oh, I had a lot of disappointments in my search for the grail, but I also found my share of inspiration. And I was able to bring students along, trying to open their eyes to this power so that they would not waste as many years as I had, sneering, boycotting, ignoring. We saw great works by Tony Kushner, Naomi Wallace, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ralph Lemon, and Kia Corthron, among others. But sitting in the audience was no longer enough. I became so inspired by August Wilson’s work that, with Harry Waters, Jr., I co-taught a course at Macalester we called “The 20th Century Through the Plays of August Wilson.” What a great learning experience that was for me! With another colleague, Bob Peterson, I co-taught a course we called “Telling Labor’s Story Through Music,” that concluded with a concertized staging of a jazz opera, Forgotten: Murder at the Ford Rouge, not only at Macalester but also at United Autoworkers Union Local 879’s hall. When, five years ago, Carlyle Brown invited me to act in his Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, I jumped at the chance. Under the direction of Noel Raymond and the mentorship of Gavin Lawrence, and in collaboration with a generous and brilliant cast, I learned the internal life of theater first hand. I will be eternally grateful to all of them.

I have learned so much. But, watch out! Being woke includes keeping my critical faculties at the ready. I know when a piece of theater works, and when it doesn’t. When my frustration with the Guthrie’s production of Clybourne Park provoked me to write a detailed screed for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, I was delighted to learn how widely it was being circulated. While my Marxist scorn for “culture” has dissipated, my passion for social transformation is as strong as ever. I am especially pleased right now that our East Side Freedom Library is hosting Carlyle Brown & Company’s Down in Mississippi, which is creating a transformative experience for audiences members from youth to seniors. What an amazing—and appropriate—use of our space!