Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Actors hold a table read at the Boston Center for the Arts for the play “Little Peasants.” (Photo: Gabrielle Jaques)

A nonprofit research and advocacy organization is brewing conversations about labor organizing in an interactive performance that lets audiences decide the outcome.

“Little Peasants” is an immersive theatrical showcase by Cambridge playwright Bernard Pollack and director Dori A. Robinson that spotlights how baristas at a fictional chain called Unicorn Coffee come together to unionize. There will be two workshop performances in February at an unusual venue: The Burren restaurant and bar in Somerville’s Davis Square.

Audiences will participate in a meeting with the baristas and be in the thick of employer and employee struggles during a unionizing campaign, which humanizes both sides of the negotiating table, Pollack said. At the end, an audience decides if Unicorn Coffee unionizes.

“I love the unknown of that. It makes every show different and interesting. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Somerville” from one performance to the next, Pollack said. “It could have completely different outcomes, and secretly I kind of hope there are, because then I know we’ve created a piece that’s truly balanced and nuanced.”

Inspiration for the show was drawn from recent labor campaigns – including at local coffee shops Diesel, Bloc and Forge; Pavement; 1369 Coffeehouse in Central and Inman squares; at Starbucks on Somerville Avenue; and at the now-closed Darwin’s Ltd. chain. Pollack and Robinson hope it helps audiences engage with the topic, though they hope people leave with more questions than answers. Pollack’s experience organizing campaigns for the National AFL-CIO, which represents 12.5 million workers and is affiliated with nearly 60 unions, helped him create a holistic portrayal of a complex topic to acknowledge that worker rights and issues in the food system are interconnected.

Even the name “Little Peasants” allows the audience to interpret who’s being named and consider who holds the power between workers and employers, Robinson said.

“Bernie has really written a script where there’s a lot of shades of gray,” Robinson said. “There isn’t one true bad guy, one true good guy, and we really see that. All the actors sort of struggled with the ethics.”

About Food Tank

Food Tank is a nonprofit that tells stories connecting food, the environment and society, said Pollack, its co-founder with Danielle Nierenberg. The nonprofit previously produced an interactive musical called “We Came to Dance” about aliens warning humans about the climate crisis; its success encouraged Pollack to work on more interactive shows, but Food Tank also organizes panels, summits and webinars. “Food Tank really tries to think about the intersection of how we can inspire, motivate and activate people toward food system change,” Pollack said.

The organizers often bring together people who would otherwise not share the same space – including activists and farmers with the private sector, donors and policymakers – in an attempt to find common ground. “How can we broadly work together to make life better?” Pollack said. “With labor organizing, it has become so polarized, and I feel like that’s something that this play really tries to explore.”

“Unicorn Coffee is all the [coffee] chains that many of us go to all the time,” Pollack said. “It’s this kind of collective experience.”

Booking The Burren

When searching for a stage, Pollack was drawn to The Burren because it’s an independent space that is well-known in Somerville. Bookers there were also seeking to expand beyond live music – the back room also hosts comedy regularly – with theater.

“I like that they showcase local artists. To me, it’s very much the spirit of Food Tank,” Pollack said. “We’re going to work hard to make sure that it’s a great experience where people then can start to expect to see theater there.”

The Cambridge and Somerville area seemed ideal for workshopping the new piece, being “kind of known for independent coffee shops and businesses at a time when everything feels like a chain or corporate,” Pollack said. “This feels like one of the last few bastions of independent venues and spaces.”

“Little Peasants” has performances at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 and Feb. 21 at The Burren, 247 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville. Tickets are $15 in advance, and $20 at the door. Information is here.