"Swimming with the Fishes"
It takes about 10 minutes of brisk walking from the 14th Street Station at Eighth Avenue to reach the Labyrinth Theater on Bank Street but Dolphins and Sharks, a new play by James Anthony Tyler, will definitely reward you for the effort. It’s not a particularly original work, being a workplace drama such as regularly appears on New York stages—like Rasheeda Speaking, Toast, My Manana Comes, Skeleton Crew, To the Bone, Exit Strategy, and so many others—but it holds together so well and is so smartly acted and staged it stands out among the crop of recent Off-Broadway openings.
|Chinaza Uche, Pernell Walker. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
If you’re familiar with the Labyrinth you’ll know that it likes to alter its audience-performance arrangements for each new production. Thus, to get to its seats, the audience at Dolphins and Sharks must bypass piles of cartons and packing material as they enter the fluorescently-lighted premises of Harlem Office. Marsha Ginsberg’s set resembles a typical office supplies store, with slatted white walls, seedy carpeting, a windowed manager’s office, and even a windowed wall with a door supposedly leading to the street outside. Copy machines fill much of the space, video screens hang here and there, and a worker stands at the cash register counter, sharpening pencils as Pretty Lady plays on a nearby monitor. And, thanks to costumer Zulema Griffin, everyone dresses exactly as they would in such an everyday space.
|Cesar J. Rosado, Flor De Liz Perez. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Of course, you’ll soon notice that maybe things aren’t quite as realistic as they appear. Only one customer, who’s present most of the time, ever appears; the only thing the business seems to do is make copies on machines that keep jamming; and only a few, limited office supplies are visible. But there’s enough detail to create a convincing arena in which the play’s five characters enact their personal and interpersonal issues.
Dolphins and Sharks aims to demonstrate the exploitation of the working class by a capitalist economy that has no room to sympathize with the needs of its employees; this is a bottom-line world of dolphins being eaten by sharks, a metaphor reflected in the activity of the sole customer we see, a gray-haired African-American woman named Amenze Amen (Tina Fabrique), a community activist opposing Harlem’s gentrification, who uses a store computer to study dolphins for a college class she’s taking.
|Pernell Walker, Chinaza Uche, Flor De Liz Perez. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
She gets a break on the copies she prints from the bighearted, big-bodied Isabel (Pernell Walker), an African-American sales associate, who, at first, is the good friend of another sales person, Xiomara Yepez (Flor De Liz Perez), a slim, pretty Dominican-American. Both women have sass and attitude to spare, but their friendship begins to fray when Xiomara interviews for and gets the job of office manager; trying hard to impress the unseen boss, Mr. Timmons, she begins to micromanage the work world around her.
Making things harder is an ambitious new hire, Yusuf Nwachukwu (Chinaza Uche), of proud Nigerian descent. His recent NYU degree in philosophy so disappointed his parents—who wanted him to follow a professional career like theirs—that they refuse to support him. This poor drone is at the bottom of the pay scale, earning $9 an hour; no matter how hard he works, he never gets the raise to $13 per he’s been promised, even after he completes his probationary period; the money for his student loans, though, has to come from somewhere.
|Cesar J. Rosado, Pernell Walker, Flor De Liz Perez, Tina Fabrique, Chinaza Uche. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
Finally, there’s the janitor, Danilo Martinez (Cesar J. Rosado), another Dominican-American, father of a newborn. The hardworking guy has to face having his days icily cut back from five to two, and some of his janitorial duties given to the sales associates. Eventually, he gets the unkindest cut of all from the one employee he feels closest to.
Dolphins and Sharks uses this small Harlem shop to reveal the heartlessness within the business world where running a business efficiently exacts a gigantic human toll on underpaid workers who have no alternatives for making a living. It also includes frequent chatter related to racial issues, including—in a fascinating bit—some uncomfortably razor-sharp banter about African blacks vis-à-vis African Americans.
|Chinaze Uche, Flor De Liz Perez, Pernell Walker, Tina Fabrique, Cesar J. Rosado. Photo: Monique Carboni.|
As we watch this slice of life, while getting cozy with the workers, we see how their everyday concerns gradually induce constant bickering, screaming arguments, and bitter rivalries, leading to the tearing asunder of friendships and the loss of jobs. You come to wish they’d all rise up and shout “Strike!” like the mob in Odets’s Waiting for Lefty; there is, in fact, a confrontational moment at the end as the actors line up facing the audience. But these are non-unionized people and, like the slaves they seem to be mirroring in an early choreographic scene shift, there’s no easy way to break their shackles.
I sat in the first row of the intimate theatre, only inches away from the actor’s faces, and rarely detected a false note in their vocal inflections, facial expressions, or even their eye movements. (A night later, I saw much better-known actors in another Off-Broadway play do exactly the opposite.) The dialogue is often raw and nasty—the “n” word gets a lot of play—and the actors get right in each other’s faces, spewing words faster than speeding bullets. Still, every intonation is as natural as life.
All the performances deserve A grades but Perez and Walker get A-pluses for the multilayered colors they convey. Walker shows clearly the strain of Isabel’s efforts to subdue the resentment she feels at Xiomara’s having leapfrogged over her to power. For her part, Perez brilliantly expresses Xiomara’s inner conflict about having to betray her friendships in order to do what’s expected of her.
This satisfied customer votes to give all these actors a raise!
155 Bank Street, NYC