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Lessons for This Moment in Business From a Hit Broadway Show

6 minute read
Kalita is co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets that share content, revenue, and distribution. She also is publisher of Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism initiative in Queens, and columnist for TIME and Charter. A veteran journalist, Kalita most recently worked at CNN, and is the author of two books. Follow her on Twitter @mitrakalita.

Like so much of the world in the spring of 2020, The Lehman Trilogy shut down before it really even got started, after just four preview performances on Broadway.

This past September, the play—about the roughly 160-year rise and fall of Lehman Brothers, from the investment bank’s origins in the American slave trade to its bankruptcy filing and role in the 2008 financial crisis—returned. Like the glowing offices depicted in its every-company-looks-this-way set, it’s been reimagined: On opening night, director Sam Mendes stood to welcome the crowd by highlighting the production’s “renewed understanding” on issues of disease and health, race, and community.

Stefano Massini’s original play, in Italian, was translated by playwright Ben Power, who describes a constant process of evolving the script to fit our current zeitgeist. “I first started thinking about the play before the election of Trump, before the referendum in the United Kingdom that changed our relationship with the world. The play uses the past to understand the present moment,” Power says. “And so as the present moment has changed dramatically and in myriad ways since 2016, the play has evolved as well,” with tweaks in dialogue, continued scrutiny of history, and an embrace of diverse casting.

Post-pandemic hiatus, The Lehman Trilogy, like its audience, is more conscious of the ethical considerations that shape businesses past and present. The new version raises more difficult issues around what a global workplace and economy can and should be at this moment in time—issues that all of us will continue to wrestle with long after the curtain goes down.

We will repeat history, but must keep reexamining it

The latest version on Broadway updates itself to make clear the unequivocal connection between slavery and the three Lehman brothers, who were slaveowners themselves and began their company as a dry-goods store before entering the cotton trade in antebellum Alabama. In one new piece of dialogue, a doctor in Montgomery says to the brothers: “Everything that was built here was built on a crime. The roots run so deep you cannot see them but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.”

This disparity between who works and who profits—a gap highlighted in recent months by waves of strikes, battles between employers and employees over workplace safety, and an increased spotlight on the undervaluing of essential workers—is a running theme in the play’s revamped version. “There were some workers who societies had held as not being really important,” said actor Adrian Lester, who plays German-born banker Emanuel Lehman. “And you go into a lockdown and suddenly you realize, everyone is equally important to make things run. These elements filtered into our approach.”

The play reserves judgment, though, and rests on the audience’s imagination and, ultimately, internalization of being complicit in broken and unethical systems. “We have to display the ignorance of the brothers,” Lester says. “They’re completely unaware of the depth of the suffering that they’re engaging in and therefore profiting from. We have to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions.”

The roots of capitalism

The pandemic allowed the play to dive even deeper into what Power calls “a new dawn of consumerism.” In one scene, Lester as a 1960s marketing director (the actors playing the three brothers all play other roles) presents to Lehman’s board a future where the act of consuming goods matters more than the goods themselves. The word “BUY” is scrawled over and over on the glass walls encasing the conference room. The word just lands differently now, after a year and a half of rethinking the things we buy, how they arrive in our hands, and the values of the companies that produce them. And also if we even need all that stuff.

“I love doing that speech because you can feel the audience looking at me: Where is he going with this?” says Lester. “It sort of has a mirror held up to them. They need to buy the next iPhone over the next Galaxy over the next thing… I don’t actually need this. I’ve been told that I need this to keep up.”

Hardly colorblind casting

Then there’s Lester himself. All three actors on stage bend roles by age and gender, but Lester, who is Black, also plays white characters. In a moment when companies (and Broadway) are reckoning with their role in upholding racial inequality, his very presence deepens and transforms the meaning of every message and the integral role of race, including whiteness, in the creation of current capital markets.

For instance, there’s a moment in the show when Lester-as-Emanuel Lehman the cotton broker carries the commodity across the stage, fraught specifically because of who’s doing the carrying. And another line later as he plays the marketing director: “A young man from Mississippi. Segregated at school, now he stands in the boardroom. On the top floor.”

“They can see the play operating on so many levels,” Lester says. “Having me do this role and play someone who is pleased about the amount of money they’re making off cotton with the other two brothers, it creates an indictment of the whole process.”

The metaverse of yesteryear

Both artists talked about the “ideas of things versus the things themselves,” as troublesome. Our interview came the morning after Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a new name and sweeping mission for his troubled empire: Meta. He focused on the company’s desire to establish a “metaverse,” which allows users to interact in immersive, virtual, and mixed-reality environments. “You’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine,” Zuckerberg said in his announcement. “Instead of looking at a screen, you’re going to be in these experiences.”

Based on the history of Lehman Brothers, that’s a scary thought, Power says. Lehman’s collapse, according to this trilogy, is a story of hubris and greed but also the lack of the tangible. Lester says there’s a fine line between trading on “the idea of things to the idea of the fake.” Power adds: “The characters in the play would recognize the drive into the metaverse. There’s a lot going on in the world at the moment and the digital world that is taking us … into a realm of obstruction. From the lessons of the play, that is an exhilarating, but potentially dangerous, trajectory.”

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