Most people like roses. Why, then, do so many get annoyed when someone tries to sell them one on the subway? Or on the street corner? Are these items any less genuine than those we might buy in a shop? Doesn’t the subway rose peddler deserve to attempt to earn his living? Perhaps it is the fact that many of these sellers are immigrants, people with no “right” to be here, that makes us avoid and scorn them. Robert Schneider’s one man show Dirt delves deep into the issues of immigration and racism, particularly how such things affect and penetrate those who are its victims. Sad, played earnestly by Christopher John Domig, is an Arab, not Kurd, as he stresses often, immigrant who was smitten with English from the moment he heard the word “Kodak” (as in the film). However, now in America, selling roses on the subway, Sad is disgusted with himself. He believes he has no right to live here, no right to sit on the park benches, and no right to dirty America’s public toilets. What holds Sad back, who is it that makes him believe he has no rights? It is society in general, but it is also he himself. He has absorbed the hatred he feels around and against him, making this hatred his own. It is made most clear in the way he refuses to give his family name and when he screams racial slurs and curses at his unseen roommate.
Sad does not embody the American ideal of the man who pulls himself up from his bootstraps, the man who ultimately triumphs out of great adversity. He’s been fully beaten down by the rules and attitudes of his new country. Despite how much his audience may want him to triumph, despite the hope he may still have, it is clear that the odds of him making it are slim, as he has become his own enemy.
Thematically and structurally, Dirt is a rough play to sit through. The play makes use of a lot of repetition. Sad tells the audience his name and that he is thirty several times, perhaps as a way of remembering who he is, perhaps as a way of fooling us. He shows a picture of his mother multiple times. Each time he shows the picture, more details emerge from the past, details he perhaps does not want us to know. Almost everything out of Sad’s mouth, even the repeated things, is contradicted at some later point. He also ends the play several times, each time saying he must go, blowing out the candle he has lit and moving toward the stage exit. Yet, several times, he returns to begin a new variation on the same theme. The fake endings are clever at first but become tiring after awhile, particularly when it becomes clear that Sad has nothing new or different to say.
Domig is an able, engaging performer. He sits in a chair center stage for much of the play but is able to maintain a high level of energy. It is when he is up and moving, however, that his earnestness and even a shred of hope become evident in his demeanor.
Ultimately, Dirt is an upsetting play. It is an hour and a half of filth and hatred, of watching a man overcome by the scorn and abuse of the world around him. An initial reaction to watching Sad may be “but I’m not like that. . .” until the realization comes that we are all implicit in the hatred, fear, and rejection of those who are not like us, particularly in a post 9/11 society, one currently at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Written over fifteen years ago, Dirt speaks more to our society today than ever before.