About Pray for the Dead

Prayer for the Dead is an experiment in theater, an original musical comedy written for and about working class people. While much of the mainstream theater is marketed to the relatively prosperous, Pray for the Dead is designed for everyone else. Pray gleefully inhabits the issues of inequality, greed and corporate and political corruption raised in the 2016 political campaign and beyond in an inspiring parable about an unlikely uprising sparked by a group of morgue workers. 

Pray for the Dead was shown to a variety of working class and union audiences in the Washington, DC/Maryland during the summer of 2016. 

The Back Story

Pray for the Dead was written by Gene Bruskin, a new playwright who retired in 2012. It drew on his long career in the labor movement where he organized everyone from nurses to slaughterhouse workers. Harking back to some of his early experiments in original musical theater in the 70s, he wrote the book and the lyrics and created the basic melodies for a dozen songs. In collaboration with musician Tom Smerling and musical director Glenn Pearson the music evolved. First Draft, a DC area theater organization that promotes new plays for new audiences, supported the work with intensive script development assistance from dramaturge Richard Washer and took the show to a public musical reading in Arlington, VA in the winter of 2016.

In the spring of 2016 Bruskin collaborated with director and performer Mike Thornton to recruit a talented group of performers and, under Thornton’s direction, created a dramatized version of Pray.  With actors on book in basic costuming and a colorful mural backdrop by Mike Alewitz (http://rogallery.com/Alewitz_Mike/alewitz-biography.html they developed a portable format for viewing the show in varied venues.

Six organizations sponsored the shows, including Busboys and Poets, the Plymouth Congregational Church and unions representing DC area labor organizations (Metro DC Labor Council)  bus drivers (Amalgamated Transitworkers Union, machinists (International Association of Machinists), maritime workers (Master Mates and Pilots International Union/ILA and healthcare workers (SEIU 1199/Baltimore.


The Genre

While worker themed plays like Pray for the Dead are unusual today, they were commonplace earlier in the 20th century. Theater about workers and unions included such plays as Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets and Pins and Needles by the New York City garment workers of ILGWU. There were also many so-called “strike plays” performed by and for workers in the midst of conflicts with their employers, and the Federal Theater Project, under FDR in the 1930s, produced union themed plays such as The Cradle Will Rock. After World War II, as commercial culture became a source of enormous corporate profits, culture that both engaged and accurately portrayed working class people largely vanished. There were some exceptions. Exceptions included the United Farmworkers (UFW) during the grape boycott in the 1960s  when Teatro Campesino (farmworker’s theater) drew crowds for Cesar Chavez’s rallies throughout California. The 1199 union in New York City developed a cultural wing called ‘Bread and Roses’ that created theater and other forms of worker-oriented culture reflecting their member’s lives and struggles.