Editor’s Note: Jonathan Karmel, a union side labor lawyer for over 34 years, is also the author of a book on workplace deaths and injuries coming out in Fall of 2017, “Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace” (Cornell University Press). Karmel is one of Picture this Post’s AUTHENTIC VOICES reviewers, with an informed outlook on the content of this play from his day to day work.
The first Picture this Post review of this important play‑
Lookingglass Theatre Company Presents BEYOND CARING Review – Intense Minimalism by Stephanie Dykes can be found here.
Lookingglass Theatre showcases conditions documented by Obama Administration
The third shift sanitation crew, made up of temporary agency workers is the focus of Alexander Zeldin’s pitch perfect examination of the working poor, who are exploited and ground up to the point of beyond caring. Ebony, a disabled African-American woman, along with Tracy, also African-American, and Sonia a Hispanic woman, stand in for the most vulnerable workers toiling in America’s growing temporary and contingent workforce. The effects of this fundamental change in the workplace were documented by David Weil, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division Administrator in the Obama administration, in his groundbreaking book, The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad For So Many And What Can Be Done To Improve It. Companies have shed activities that were deemed peripheral to their core business model, especially the direct employment of its labor force, which has been transferred to temporary employment agencies, thus fissuring the traditional employer-employee relationships. These agencies competing for the attention and business of large companies in need of workers do so by trying to undercut each other on the wages they charge for the services of their temporary workers. As a result, wage inequality has grown. In addition, unsafe workplaces have become more widespread as these workers are usually provided with the least amount of training while being assigned to the most dangerous jobs. All of this is a way to keep minimize a company’s workers compensation costs by shifting the costs of injuries to temporary workers away from its responsibility and corporate bottom line. In America today, these contingent workers, like Ebony, Tracy and Sonia, are mostly women of color who work in minimum wage jobs with little or no benefits, and no safety net to catch them from their inevitable fall.
Realistic Work Environment
In Beyond Caring, these women, along with a mysterious co-worker, Phil, are initially assigned to clean the employee break room, which serves as the set scene throughout the play. And, like Zeldin’s script, the set design flawlessly evokes the workplaces of America’s workforce; often hidden in plain view. It is a grim and windowless room, lighted only by rows of buzzing fluorescent lights that flicker along with the rising tensions among the workers. No matter how much cleaning spray and polishing is applied by the women, the room remains grimy and unclean. There is a solitary folding table, scuffed from use and abuse, surrounded by cold metal folding chairs. These chairs also serve as places to lay down and sleep for Ebony and Sonia, who like too many of America’s real working poor, end up sleeping on the streets at night, or if they’re lucky, in shelters. The walls in the break room are plastered with what appears to be the requisite government employment related posters, but the only poster legible from the audience describes what to do in the event of choking, which is what the this job is doing to these workers; literally choking the life out of them. The final stage prop indignity is a broken coffee vending machine, which takes Sonia’s money without dispensing any coffee.
Supervising this “team” is Ian, a low-level management lackey. Ian dispenses pep talks and critiques in the daily “huddles” with the workers. He pretends that he is better than them by claiming that he acts in “spiritual” ways when, in fact, he is just as debased by his work as the women he supervises, so much so that he spends his idle time watching porn on his flip phone. This degradation continues with Phil and Tracy who have sudden and passionless sex along the wall of the break room.
In the powerful and wordless final scene, Ian is seen working side-by-side with the women and Phil as they power wash and hand clean the grinders, saws and conveyors splattered with bloody gristle from the slaughterhouse production lines. In the end, the entire cast, workers and supervisor, are one and the same, cogs ground down by their work.
The script at times is as sparse and bare as the break room setting. There are no long monologues or witty repartee between the workers. This is not Mamet or Letts. But, the realism of their speech and conversation is the strength to their work life stories. Zeldin wants to bring the audience on the Mag Mile proximate to the gritty lives of these workers. Proximity breeds awareness, and awareness is a necessary first step to meaningful social change. The workers in Beyond Caring, like millions of others, take care of us when we are sick, keep us safe in our persons and in our homes, build and repair our roads and infrastructure, provide us with shelter, teach our children, grow and make our food, sell and serve our food, clean our streets and buildings, make our hotel beds, get us from one place to the next, assemble our cars, and keep us virtually connected to one another. Without them, our lives as we know them today would be unrecognizable. The simplest experience of buying milk, eating a steak, or lying down to sleep in an upscale hotel room was brought to us unobtrusively and seamlessly by someone who most Americans give little thought to. Becoming proximate with their suffering is uncomfortable, and that is the power and purpose in Beyond Caring.
Now through May 7. Jonathan Karmel will be speaking in talk back sessions for several upcoming performances. For a schedule of these talks write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Photos: Liz Lauren
About the Author:Jon Karmel is a Chicago based lawyer representing labor unions and workers around the Midwest. Jon has been named among Chicago's Top Rated Lawyers, and was selected for inclusion in the 2013-2017 Illinois Super Lawyers. He serves as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, where he teaches trial advocacy skills. He is a frequent speaker on labor and employments topics. Jon recently wrote a book about workers' deaths and injuries, featuring interviews with injured workers and surviving family members. Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace that will be published by the Cornell University Press late summer 2017.