Cut, Baste, Stitch, Sing!

06/21/2011
Felicia R. Lee
NY Times

The big voice and dramatic flair that served Wanda Imasuen well as a community organizer are turning out to translate nicely to another stage: musical comedy.

Ms. Imasuen plays several roles in an updated revival of the fabled 1937 revue “Pins and Needles” that aims to demonstrate that when it comes to the struggles of working people, as she puts it, “the same thing that was happening then is happening now.”

Running at the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, from Wednesday through July 9, the show, comprising sketches and songs, is a joint endeavor of the Obie-winning Foundry Theater and Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (Furee), which since 2001 has worked to increase access to housing, jobs and services for low-income families.

Bringing together artists and activists on this kind of project might seem like a leap of faith, but Melanie Joseph, the artistic director of the Foundry, doesn’t see it that way. And she has history to back her up. After all, “Pins and Needles” in its original incarnation was created to benefit the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union — and ended up as one of the decade’s biggest Broadway hits.

Most of the 14 songs in this new version, “Furee in Pins & Needles,” are by Harold J. Rome from the original production, and include a satirical song called “Doing the Reactionary.” That song pokes fun at politicians who change their political stances in reaction to criticism. While Eastern European immigrants made up the show’s original union-member cast, the new “Pins & Needles” features mostly minority women. To reflect the times, songs about Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin were jettisoned; two blues songs by Josh White were added. Contemporary sketches zing Donald Trump and applaud new rights for domestic workers.

During its long initial run, some 40 songs came and went into the revue, so this mix-and-match production is in character, explained Richard Harper, the musical director. “There’s no standard version of this show, so it was open to interpretation,” he said.

“Pins & Needles” is the final and most elaborate production in a Foundry festival called NYC ... Just Like I Pictured It, which began in the spring. For each piece, an activist group was matched with theater professionals to come up with a performance that reflected an idealized version of New York; in one instance Adhikaar, a Queens group that promotes rights for Nepali-speaking communities, put on a short play based on the true story of a woman from such a community who was abused for years by her employers.

“Art,” Ms. Joseph said, “should be part of the creative process of changing the world.”

With a noted Off Broadway director in Ken Rus Schmoll and a nine-performance run, “Pins & Needles” strives for professionalism even with an amateur cast in which all hopefuls who auditioned landed a part.

At one Saturday afternoon rehearsal in the basement of an arts center in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, cast members picked their way through scenes and tried kicking up their heels on cue.

Ms. Imasuen, who retired from Furee in 2010 after seven years as a lead organizer, was playing a nasty social services manager who clashes with an applicant for medical benefits, portrayed by Cynthia Butts. After a long wait, Ms. Butts receives the wrong form and is forced back in line. The scene, one of the new segments, was from Lynn Nottage’s 2004 play “Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine,” about a successful woman whose life tumbles south.

Meanwhile, Shannon Barber, a 30-year-old community organizer who has conducted surveys of police behavior in struggling neighborhoods, waited for his turn to rehearse several roles, including those of a factory superintendent and a newspaper editor. He also sings Josh White’s “Free and Equal Blues.”

“When I knock on doors, I’m doing what this play does to an audience,” he said. “I’m grabbing their attention.”

Daniel Katz, a historian at the State University of New York Empire State College in Brooklyn, talked to four cast members from the original production for his forthcoming book, “All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism.”

With 250,000 members, the garment workers’ union in 1936 was “one of the most powerful unions in the country,” Mr. Katz said.

“The union not only had an extraordinary education program,” he continued, “but they had classes in economics and philosophy, drama clubs and an athletic league.”

It also had a reputation as a hotbed of radical politics, which is what led its president, David Dubinsky, to create a production company that would humanize the union, using the tools of showbiz, Mr. Katz explained. “Pins and Needles” opened on Nov. 27, 1937, at the Labor Stage Theater and was soon a hit. (The New York Times called it “a witty and tuneful morsel considerably enhanced by the infectious enthusiasm of the cast.”)

About a year later it moved to the larger Windsor Theater, where it ran until June 1940 — 1,108 performances in total. The cast performed at the White House at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt and went on a national tour.

Now remembered as a footnote in theater history, “Pins and Needles” has not gone the way of other revues popular in their day that disappeared entirely. Barbra Streisand performed “Doing the Reactionary,” “Not Cricket to Picket” and other songs from the score on a 1962 album. The Roundabout Theater revived the show in 1978; last year the Cock Tavern Theater in London drew good reviews for its own rendition.

“There have been constant attempts to bring it back, but it was always difficult because it was always so much of its time,” said John Kenrick, a theater historian. “Musical theater right now seems to have lost all of its political content.”

The show’s history was one reason that Mr. Schmoll was excited to sign on as director. “I jumped at the chance,” he said. “I was interested in making theater with people not necessarily within the theater community.”

“Culture in this country and in this town is owned by a specific class of people, mostly upper-middle-class white,” he added. “But there are all kinds of people who can make art — and for whom art is made.”