In all likelihood, this is the first month in local theatrical history to feature two high-profile plays involving people who are paid to clean up shit. In Fully Committed, the Jungle Theater production recently transferred to the Pantages Theater, a harried restaurant reservationist must deal with a stomach-turning accident in the women's restroom. In the Guthrie's Nickel and Dimed, a dramatization of Barbara Ehrenreich's experiential tour through low-wage America, audiences encounter a survey of the many yucky varieties of toilet-bowl stains.
Quite literally, then, these are crappy jobs, the likes of which are rarely depicted in plays, movies, or novels. As a result, the people who punch in for such jobs are something of a mystery to many better-situated Americans. "The poor are just not visible. There are a lot of upper-middle-class people who are completely clueless about their existence," says Ehrenreich over the phone from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. Nickel and Dimed has done something to combat this ignorance, at least among the mainly left-wing choir that made it a bestseller, and now a stage hit in its sixth major production.
The book is a piece of social criticism that doubles as a funny adventure story in which Ehrenreich, a successful writer with a Ph.D. in biology, describes three months of research-cum-slumming. A vocal opponent of welfare reform, Ehrenreich tried to collect a glimpse of life for someone just bumped off the dole. She spent a month each in Florida, Maine, and Minnesota, working as a waitress, housecleaner, nursing home aide, hotel maid, and Wal-Mart salesperson. The jobs tended to pay around $6 to $7 an hour, which Erhenreich repeatedly found wasn't enough to muster the rent, even when she combined two jobs. In Minnesota, where she worked at Wal-Mart during the summer of 2000, she wasn't able to find an apartment and wound up boarding in an overpriced motel.
For the most part, the Guthrie's staging of Nickel and Dimed will be seen by an affluent crowd, far removed from the trials of restocking Wal-Mart racks and cleaning toilets. In one scene, the actors break character and engage the audience in a discussion about fair wages for housecleaners, knowing that a good share of the crowd are probably employers in that capacity. "I give the people [Barbara] meets more space, they have monologues," says Nickel and Dimed playwright Joan Holden over lunch at Gallery 8, the Walker Art Center's cafeteria. "But it remains a play that is written to bring the news to a middle-class audience. People who do these jobs know this stuff."
In an article in last December's issue of American Theatre magazine, critic Misha Berson observed an upswing in plays about low-wage work. In addition to Nickel and Dimed and Fully Committed, Berson cites Mike Daisey's 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com and revivals of Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel's 1974 oral history. In the same article, Berson accuses Nickel and Dimed of being "at times an ungainly, didactic, and strident piece of theater." Indeed, art that tries to portray the lives of the poor and working class is frequently dismissed as "preachy," or it is presumed to be in violation of the sacred "write what you know" rule. Theater artists, though not a particularly moneyed lot, typically come from middle-class backgrounds, and are as a rule more acquainted with the self-made penury of an artistic life than the terminal drudgery of involuntary wage slavery.
In the American theater, major playwrights such as August Wilson and David Mamet run counter to this tendency, as does the programming of most multicultural and feminist theater companies. Still, one is far more likely to see the wealthy than the poor onstage, and the workday grind is rarely dramatized. Holden, who is 64 years old, goes back to the period of her youth for a partial explanation of the shortage of class-consciousness in the current theater.
"The first and foremost [reason] is the lasting, deep trauma inflicted by McCarthyism," she says. "In the '30s and '40s, all art was social. There was a big reaction against it. Part of that reaction is the natural cycle: Each generation revolts against the generation preceding it. But I think that in education it became anathema. Social content became equated with bad art for reasons that go beyond just the natural dialectic of cultural development, and [that idea] was promoted by the government, the arts agencies, the foundations, the universities...and we haven't gotten over it." This contention doesn't jibe particularly well with our local experience of "Marxian" academics and social-service-art grant-givers. But it's worth noting that in the '40s and '50s, even the CIA was involved in promoting art that favored individualism, abstraction, and "art for art's sake" over a social agenda.
A play about the poor or working class tends to be seen as inherently political. (Though the attempt to scrub contemporary social issues from art is itself political, reflecting the belief that politics can somehow be removed like a tumor without affecting the function of the organ it was attached to.) Of course, Nickel and Dimed is polemical. Without saying so directly, it serves as an argument for living-wage laws, a censure of welfare reform, and a plea for good tipping and consumer tidiness in retail settings.
Ehrenreich says her best-case scenario for the impact of Nickel and Dimed is for people to "rise up and march on City Hall. But that doesn't happen too often," she admits, moving on to a more realistic hope. "In terms of more affluent people, [I hope] they will just start thinking, start being more aware of all the people who they interact with every day who they tend not to see but who are doing things like feeding them and cleaning up after them and waiting on them. You know, to begin to think of them as people and to be more curious about their situation."
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