Theater Interview: Playwright Bernard Pollack on “Little Peasants” — A Holistic View of Union Organizing

By Bill Marx

Must the stage only discreetly charm the bourgeoisie?

A look at the workshop reading of Little Peasants at The Burren Backroom in Somerville. Photo: Sabrina Endicott, Food Tank

“I have long argued that theater alone cannot achieve any social change,” posited the Scottish dramatist and director John McGrath, an admired creator of, and advocate for, theater that was popular, relevant, and politically engaged. “At best it can voice the demands already in motion, or strongly desired.” I have been disappointed — though not surprised — that Boston’s theaters have staged nothing about the “demands in motion” being made throughout America today by the working class and unions. Over the past few years, campaigns to unionize — efforts met with fierce corporate resistance — have been taking place at Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s. The UAW’s successful campaign for a fair contract has inspired similar crusades throughout the auto industry. (The American Prospect reports that, on January 29, the United Auto Workers [UAW] announced that more than 10,000 workers across 13 nonunion plants have signed union cards since last November, when the union announced an ambitious goal to organize 150,000 autoworkers.) Why shouldn’t there be theater productions that reflect the experiences of the working class, plays and musicals that offer entertainment, solace, and critique? Must the stage only discreetly charm the bourgeoisie?

So it was with hopeful curiosity that I ventured to a world premiere workshop play reading presented by the nonprofit Food Tank at The Burren Backroom in Somerville. Performed by actors on book, Bernard Pollack’s Little Peasants is set at a coffee shop in the heartland, part of a national chain (think Starbucks) whose workers are about to vote on whether to organize and become part of a union. A female corporate honcho who started out as a barista and a professional anti-union lawyer have flown in and they are determined, by hook or crook, to stop the effort. Their cushy jobs are very much on the line. Meanwhile, a diverse assemblage of workers must face their very real fears as they calculate what they stand to gain and lose if they join a union. Pollack does an effective job (albeit laying on trowels of caricature) dramatizing various economic/ethical issues, ranging from low wages and disrespectful treatment to corporate spying and union problems with diversity. The dramedy takes particular pains to highlight the faux pledges made by a large corporation that’s oh-so-anxious to brand itself as “progressive.” The business’s set-up dangles promises of fairer pay and benefits for its workers, but the system has been structured to frustrate them at every turn.

At The Burren, Little Peasants was met with enthusiasm; audience members reveled in the climactic opportunity to vote for or against the union. There will be another workshop reading on February 21, though it is already sold out. (Special Guest Speaker at the performance: US Representative Ayanna Pressley)

I sent off a few questions, via e-mail, to Pollack about the rookie company and its commitment to putting on plays that speak to the working class.

Arts Fuse: Little Peasants addresses the cause of Food Workers rather than current efforts at corporations like Amazon and Tesla to unionize — why this particular target now?

Bernard Pollack, co-founder of the nonprofit Food Tank. Photo: Sabrina Endicott, Food Tank

Bernard Pollack: Alongside my co-founder Danielle Nierenberg, I work full time on food and agriculture issues through our nonprofit Food Tank. Little Peasants was inspired by the fact that many of the people who grow, process, transport, cook, and serve our food are often underpaid, exploited, and, ironically, some of the hungriest on the planet. Absent stronger minimum wage laws and additional government intervention, unions can be one of the best remedies low-wage food and restaurant workers have to lift themselves out of poverty and into the middle class. We’ve seen a reassurance in union organizing in the food sector and we thought theater could uniquely present a sneak peek behind the closed doors of these campaigns and capture some of that struggle.

AF: What were the challenges when it came to writing Little Peasants? Are you making any changes based on audience feedback?

Pollack: I’m new to the Boston area and literally here without any friends, let alone a community of fellow artists, so one of my challenges was finding local creatives that I could trust with this project. I hit the lottery with Elena Morris, the show’s dramaturg and producer, who helped me expand the show from a one-act iteration we did at SXSW 2023 and introduced me to our amazing director, Dori Robinson. They recruited a phenomenal Boston-based cast of some of the most talented actors I’ve ever met, including Christa Brown, Autumn Blazon-Brown, Lorraine Victoria Kanyike, Rob Cope, Ciera-Sadé Wade, and Jake Mouchawar. The feedback from our first reading was both incredibly supportive and also invaluable. Gabrielle Jacques did a wonderful job recruiting the local theater community to attend, and I felt really blessed by their generosity in offering detailed notes and feedback. Our next reading reflects many terrific ideas and changes that they graciously offered us.

AFLittle Peasants is agitprop, which has a long and honorable history. Still, you also take shots at the lack of diversity in unions along with the so-called “progressivism” of corporations like Starbucks. Why no heroic workers? And the corporate suits are given some snappy comebacks …

Pollack: It’s so interesting that was your take. One thing that came from the feedback surveys was that some people thought the show was too pro-union, while others thought it was unfairly too pro-management. What I found most interesting is how some people said their vote seemed to ping-pong or change during the show. Someone told us that when the show began, no matter what, they would vote for the union, but when it came time to vote, the play had convinced them to change their minds. They had surprised themselves! And literally two surveys later, we had someone else say the exact opposite about their vote.

A look at the workshop reading of Little Peasants at The Burren Backroom in Somerville. Photo: Sabrina Endicott, Food Tank

As a playwright, I can’t dream of a better outcome because many of us live in our information bubbles – less exposed (and often less open) to the nuances and gray area of issues and new perspectives than ever before. The script really tries to present a holistic view of union organizing, and the pressure workers confront in making that tough decision. Hopefully, audiences leave the show realizing how agonizing, complicated, and even courageous a union vote often is due to almost unbelievable amounts of employer pressure. It’s also important to convey that unions, like any institution, aren’t and haven’t historically always been perfect. You can be pro-union and acknowledge they can sometimes be deeply flawed, corruptible, and ineffective.

AF: Given that this is a time of enormous union/worker activity, including considerable successes, why do you think there is so little American theater about the lives of workers?

Pollack: As a relatively new playwright, I’m not sure I can offer too much helpful insight. The labor movement has been mostly absent from screens and stages, frankly, since the Reagan era, despite its workforce largely made up of progressives and union members. I’m sure creatives have tried and encountered roadblocks, as the theater and film industry (and their parent companies) would understandably, given their vested interests, be reluctant to advance the goals of unions. However, I do believe we will see more performing arts that invoke economic class as a complement to modern identity politics, already emerging from this growing new union movement. I guess the trick is to become so big you can’t be ignored.

In my own small way, I’d like to contribute to that change. My next play will focus on migrant farmworkers in South Carolina. I’ll be spending part of the summer conducting on-the-ground research and interviews with them in the fields.

AF: You are mounting the workshop at Somerville’s Irish pub, the Burren. How important is location when it comes to producing theater about workers and their issues?

Pollack: There is no better place to bring this story to life than The Burren, which offers such vibrancy and showcases so much local talent to the community. It’s more important than ever before to support small businesses like this one and others that bring us together. And it’s exciting to see how they are expanding more into the performing arts, especially family-friendly theater.

AF: You have written a musical about the climate crisis and this play about union organizing among food workers. What is next for you? And do you see other dramatists and companies beginning to produce shows based on class issues?

Pollack: Yes, we did an immersive musical called WeCameToDance about dancing aliens visiting from the Trappist exoplanets, here to warn us about the climate crisis. It had a month-long sold-out run during the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, received praise from the New York Times and the Scotsman, and was selected for performances at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The show is magical and has yet to be performed in the United States. I can’t think of a better place to introduce it then here, in Boston.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Gerald Peary on February 19, 2024 at 10:02 am

    Hi Bill: I’m proud of you going out into the world to find this little play reading, highlight it, and give it importance by your interview with the author. The elephant in the room, of course, is Waiting for Lefty. Has Bernard Pollock read it? Incorporated it? I was waiting for your question about Clifford Odets, which never came.

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 19, 2024 at 10:59 am

      Thanks, but I didn’t mention Odets’ 1935 drama because Little Peasants deals with workers who are considering joining a union and taking a vote — we are not at the contentious point of a strike vote. Though Pollack provides plenty of jabs at corporate anti-union tactics, such as suits gathering “blackmail” material on specific employees.

      I would love to see an update/rewrite of Waiting for Lefty . Have you read it lately? It is very dated. But a talented playwright could work wonders.

      I quote John McGrath (1935-2002)in the piece because his career is more germaine to considering what political/union scripts should be at this point in time. Do you know of him? You should … he was an articulate, outspoken advocate for incisive Socialist theater — a talented Scottish playwright, producer, and director — his books A Good Night Out (1981) and The Bone Won’t Break (1990) are essential reading for dramatists/companies creating vibrant political theater for the working class.

      Note: The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil (1973), McGrath’s best-known play, took on the fossil fuel industry well before it become fashionable. According to the May, 2023 Stornoway Gazette article on the script — which pays homage to the 50th anniversary of the debut production:

      It is difficult to think of any other piece of Scottish theatre which has created such a lasting presence. Certainly, there has been nothing written and performed about the Highlands and Islands which came close to it in terms of resonance and impact. Integral to these claims is that it emerged from a group of exceptional talents.

      I see the Food Bank effort as being part of what I hope will be an expanding movement around the country … as unions grow, so will their need to create independent “entertainment” that speaks to their concerns. Not a “little” thing.

      I recommended the McGrath books to Pollack and he told me he ordered them. Hey, maybe he is up for redo of Waiting for Lefty?

      • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 19, 2024 at 12:51 pm

        By the way, here is a 2015 commentary I wrote lamenting the lack of political theater since Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

        It has a juicy Odets quote: In 1939, Clifford Odets wrote that ‘we are living at a time when new art works should shoot bullets.”

    • Bernard Pollack on February 19, 2024 at 2:32 pm

      Thanks Gerald. I love Waiting for Lefty. I wish more plays like it were out there and while I wouldn’t say I incorporated into Little Peasants it is most certainly a source of inspiration.

  2. Joan Lancourt on February 22, 2024 at 7:02 am

    If Pollack is going to write a play on farm workers is S.C., it would be worth his while to talk with Marshall Ganz at the Kennedy School. Marshall was a lead organizer with Caesar Chavez in Calif., and would be interested in Pollack’s work.

  3. Bernard Pollack on February 22, 2024 at 7:52 am

    Great suggestion Joan! I’ll reach out to Marshall!

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