Sisyphus and Labor: Chicago Play Celebrates Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present

Kari Lydersen

Labor Rites' narrative spans centuries, from Mother Jones (at top) to the Occupy movement (at bottom).

EVANSTON, IL. — Most people know Sisyphus as the man forever condemned to endlessly push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. Northwestern University performance studies chair D. Soyini Madison probably isn’t the first one to use Sisyphus as a metaphor for the seemingly meaningless and soul-sucking nature of hard, repetitive manual labor — which so many people must do to survive, even as their work leaves them relatively little time and energy for really living.”

But in the play Labor Rites, running May 11 through May 20 at Northwestern, Madison and her crew add a new, unexpected and refreshing twist to the legend of Sisyphus. Rather than being mentally and emotionally crushed and deadened by dreadful, purposeless repetitious labor,” he is recast as the archetypal trickster,” in the tradition of Kokopelli, Coyote, Puck and other characters, who has the last laugh because he manages to take control of his own fate and find beauty and glory in his toils. He turned his punishment and drudgery into possibilities and freedom!” an actor declares.

In this way, Sisyphus becomes an apt and timeless metaphor for the labor movement, wherein people come together in inspiring acts of resistance, bravery, creativity and pure joy in the face of grueling and brutal oppression and exploitation. 

Madison’s play, performed by an impressive cast of undergraduate students, weaves together vignettes of famous and lesser-known labor struggles and labor heroes past and present, with dance, dramatic tableaus and humor from narrator clowns” and a sort of chorus providing the glue. The mesmerizing physical numbers include a recurring ballet wherein the cast mimics the repetitive motions of sewing in a sweatshop, simultaneously expressing both grace and pain.

The first half of the two-hour production invokes historical sagas: the hell-raising of Mother Jones, the martyrdom of Joe Hill, the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Haymarket Affair, the Memphis sanitation workers strike, the Bread and Roses garment workers movement of a century ago… Being reminded of the boldness, sheer courage and inspiring successes of the labor movement in these decades past, I had the sinking feeling that the movement is in a sorry state today by comparison.

But the second half of the play does much to dispel this feeling, celebrating recent struggles including the Republic Windows and Doors occupation, the battle over public workers union rights in Wisconsin and the UNITE-HERE cafeteria workers campaign. (Disclosure: the Republic Windows segment is adapted from my book Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.)

The play invokes the struggles of everyday workers, like those who push wheelchairs at O’Hare and Midway airports or the maid who knows all her employers’ secrets because half the time they don’t even know you are there.” The waitress busting your butt for people who don’t know jack about good manners.” The secretary paying more taxes than her boss; the West Virginia coal miner worried about black lung disease. In one of various pointed current references, an actor says emphatically, Labor is the United States Postal Service!”

Throughout the play Madison stresses the importance of unions, including a vignette where characters square off over common popular criticisms of unions: that they were important in their time but are no longer relevant, that they are bloated and corrupt, that they kill jobs. The ending montage includes calls for a six-hour work day, for re-imagining labor” and the right to live, not simply to exist,” peppered with quotes from historical and contemporary leaders like Chicago organizer James Thindwa (a member of In These Times’ board of directors) and Elwood Flowers, of the 1968 transit workers strike.

Madison specializes in theater and performance integrated with ongoing social issues; her past works include staging oral histories of service workers and laborers in North Carolina (“I Have My Story to Tell”) and Water Rites,” a multimedia piece about the privatization of water in Ghana. Her recent book Acts of Activism: Human Rights and Radical Performance explores how women in Ghana use performance in their daily struggles for dignity, economic justice and democracy.

Labor Rites plays Friday May 18 and Saturday May 19 at 8 p.m. and Sunday May 20 at 2 p.m. at the Wallis Theater on Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Ill., 1949 Campus Drive. Admission is free.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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