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Jeff Cowie's history 'Stayin' Alive' inspires a play

Jefferson Cowie

It isn’t often that academics see the words of their books brought to life.

However, that’s exactly what is happening for ILR School labor historian Jefferson Cowie with the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’ production of “Soup, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” inspired by his book “Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.”

Published in 2010, “Stayin' Alive” covers the cultural and political implications of the economic upheavals of the 1970s. Cowie chronicles America’s path from optimism and rising wealth after the New Deal to the economic inequalities that followed.

Rebecca Gilman, a playwright and professor at Northwestern University, said she struggled to find inspiration for her commissioned work until she read Cowie’s book. Gilman’s play is a narrative about “the beginning of the end of the labor movement” and a study of how the past helped create the political, social and economic trends of today, said Gilman. The play’s title refers to charity fundraiser cookbooks created in small towns such as Monroe, Wis., where the play is set. The production premiered March 12 and runs through March 30.

When its main employer – a cheese factory – is bought by a big manufacturer, the peaceful small town turns into a battleground as families struggle to retain their independence, identity and livelihoods.

New opportunities develop for some employees, but not their neighbors. Difficult choices must be made, testing loyalties and relationships.

By setting the play in the 1970s, Gilman hopes to engage the audience emotionally while challenging them intellectually by asking them to consider this country’s “present-day war on organized labor.”

“When you are toiling away at research, you just hope someone will read your work,” Cowie says. “But to help inspire a play is thrilling. I love the idea of bridging scholarship and the arts, and flattered that a playwright like Rebecca Gilman might find some inspiration in my work.”

The theater and Webster University will host a visit by Cowie to see the play, speak about his Cornell work and make media appearances in support of the production.

Anna Carver, MMH ’15, writes for the ILR School Communications and Marketing Department. 

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John Carberry