The working class as a subject for drama has caught on since Donald Trump was voted into office—although prescient playwrights had cottoned to the richness of the possibilities before the election. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, presented at the Public Theater in November, is moving to Broadway next month, but it had already been in the works a year before. James Anthony Tyler’s Dolphins and Sharks, now at the Labyrinth Theater, is equally worthy of notice. Although the Labyrinth production is billed as a world premiere, Tyler’s play has been in development since 2015.
The characters in Dolphins and Sharks are of a different social class than Nottage’s laid-off union workers in a steel tubing factory. Tyler focuses on the lowest rung of unskilled labor, who have no unions or degrees (or impractical ones). Uniquely, too, all his characters are people of color.
At Harlem Copy on 137th Street, the employees have little hope of advancement until an opening occurs; when one does, two women working there, Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez) and Isabel (Pernell Walker), discuss Xiomara’s likely advancement. As it happens, a young college graduate, Yusuf (Chinaza Uche), has just wangled his way into being hired as well. The shop politics among the three is amplified by the janitor, Danilo (Cesar J. Rosado), who hopes to join the NYPD, and Ms. Amen (Tina Fabrique), a gray-haired, feisty activist for preserving Harlem’s unique character from gentrification. She frequently copies her flyers and documents at the copy shop and stays past closing time.
Under director Charlotte Brathwaite, Tyler’s play unfolds with masterly plotting, but with excessive visual frippery left intact from the script. The muscular dialogue scenes are sometimes undercut by the scene changes, featuring gaudy video design by Andrew Schneider, and noisy music and sound by Justin Hicks. Tyler’s play doesn't really need actors miming the picking of cotton, cutting sugar cane, or shoveling, nor the familiar historical pictures of racist signs about drinking fountains, etc., that flash on computer monitors, nor slow-motion sequences. Luckily, the flashy overkill (perhaps Brathwaite was tapped because her specialty is multimedia) doesn’t obscure the playwright’s dramatic abilities and urgent voice.
The three people at the play’s center struggle to survive under direction from an unseen Mr. Timmons, who, one knows instinctively, is white and who chooses Xiomara to run the shop, immediately pitting her against the people she supervises. Although Yusuf was promised $13 an hour, he is only being paid $9; broken copy machines, though, are replaced with newer ones. Yusuf needs the income, but Xiomara, pressed to cut costs by Timmons, is unable to make demands for fairness to the boss. “We were all told that we’d get a certain rate when we started this job and then didn’t,” says Isabel. “That’s how this company works.”
As things worsen, Xiomara adopts the autocratic air of a tyrant, sparking Isabel’s resistance. The atmosphere becomes as cutthroat as that of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (there’s even money going missing), but the principals are much more torn between innate decency and their need to survive. The title, from some research by Ms. Amen, refers to dolphins sticking together to protect their school from sharks. In this atmosphere, Tyler suggests, the dolphins are forced to become sharks to protect themselves.
Tyler indicts the current practice of capitalism at the fundamental level, but also shows the way that people of color end up the worse for playing the game. Blacks and Hispanics are pitted against each other, but the rivalry also encompasses Yusuf, of black African descent, and Isabel, a black American, as well. As Fabrique’s pushy but upbeat Ms. Amen demands, “Are we going to fight each other for crumbs?”
The five actors are superb, particularly the office workers. The petite Perez shows Xiomara’s innate strength, intelligence and good instincts, and how they are corrupted by a system that views delays from subways and forgetting office keys as major character flaws. Walker seizes the showy part of Isabel, who is overweight and has dreadlocks piled into a topknot, with vigor. She’s someone to be afraid of, and someone you also want on your side. Her fast and funny trash talk includes real gems. Listening to Yusuf quote his favorite philosophers to Xiomara, she observes, “Job market ain’t no joke if people quotin’ stuff.” Uche’s Yusuf maintains a likability even when his outlook grows darker.
Unfortunately, the play ends with a jarring and unnecessary moment of agitprop, yet this work confirms that Tyler’s voice is not only necessary, but one worth listening to.
The Labyrinth Theater Company production of James Anthony Tyler’s Dolphins and Sharks plays through March 19 at the Bank Street Theater (155 Bank St.). Performances are at 7 p.m. Sun. and Tues. and at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 513-1080 (Tues.-Fri. from 12-6 p.m. or two hours before any performance) or visit labtheater.org.