Red diaper babies at Tribeca and off Broadway

“Red diaper baby” is a term used to describe a child of parents who were either in the Communist Party USA or close to it. It’s also the name of a hilarious one-man play written and performed by monologist Josh Kornbluth. It affectionately pokes fun at the trials of growing up in a communist family, but ultimately derides and condemns the communist model. Josh also wrote and starred in a popular film, Haiku Tunnel, directed by his brother Jake, which means Jake is also a red diaper baby.

Jake Kornbluth presented a new film at the recent 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Inequality for All, his first documentary, in which he focuses on the life and teachings of Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich. It won a special award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

The film is reminiscent of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as an expose on the failings of the capitalist system with suggestions on how we can save it. Reich is an intelligent, well-liked spokesman for the American capitalist system, hoping to bring a human face to its exploitative aims. After incessant self-deprecating remarks about his short height, Reich is shown charming his classroom in a down-to-earth analysis of what went wrong with the American economy over the last century.

The film displays a simple graph that shows the fall and rise of the economy from the 1900s to now, then overlays it on a picture of a suspension bridge showing the cables dropping between two towers. Reich also uses the graphic to show the growing disparity of salaries between CEOs and workers, which started out the 20th century as roughly 10 to 1 but now reaches over a ratio of 430 to 1

He points out that the big change came in the late 1970s when women joined the workforce in large numbers, mostly due to the need for supportive family income, and credit spending became rampant, and thus began the disintegration of the middle class. Reagan and the neoconservatives chucked unions, deregulated many industries and gave free rein to banks and corporations.

But Reich’s faith and hope lies in the capitalism system. He suggests we need to get the billionaires to spend more of their wealth to feed the economy, and we need to return power to unions in order to raise wages, although he admits workers’ pay will never come close to what it was before.

Of course Reich’s prescription is OK as far as it goes. But the director should have listened to his communist parents when he was growing up: they I’m sure knew more about the cyclical nature of capitalism, and its voracious appetite for greater profits. A suspension bridge has cables falling and rising more than once. In the case of capitalism, where is the end of the bridge?

Also appearing in the Big Apple is the work of another red diaper baby, this time in the off-Broadway theater. The award-winning drama Finks is a fictionalized play by Joe Gilford based on the lives of his well-known progressive actor/comedian parents, Jack and Madeline Lee Gilford, who were victims of the McCarthy-era blacklist.

This historically accurate recreation of the dark days of the witchhunt features characters who are composites of well-known actors and directors like Jerome Robbins, Phillip Loeb and Zero Mostel. Much of the dialog is based on actual transcriptions from 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, where “finks” named names and ruined people’s lives. The fast-paced wonderfully acted slice of history exposes the rabid insanity of the attempt to silence the progressive community and shows the destruction it eventually caused, ending careers and even some lives.

The playwright’s personal recollections of the courage of his parents and others who stood up to the attack, and also those who succumbed to the pressures of HUAC to “fink” against their former friends and associates, are stunningly presented in a highly entertaining production filled with exciting dialog, dancing, music and award-winning performances. The play recently received two nominations for Drama Desk Awards, Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actress.

Gilford tried for over five years to get the play produced across the country, to no avail, until the small long-running Ensemble Studio Theatre took it in. Hopefully regional theaters around the country will be attracted to this exciting reminder of the days of courage against the American witchhunt.

Photo: A scene from “Finks” by Joe Gilford. Ensemble Studio Theatre




Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.