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Dolphins and Sharks

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 2, 2017

Pernell Walker and Flor De Liz Perez
Photo by Monique Carboni

With the premiere of Dolphins and Sharks at the Labyrinth Theater Company, the professional debut of playwright James Anthony Tyler is an impressive one indeed. The play is a fiercely comic, provocative, and, at times, harrowing work that explores with great insight the tense socio-economic and racially-charged landscape that will be recognizable to those familiar with Lynn Nottage's Sweat or Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew.

Here the setting is not the factory of Nottage's and Morisseau's plays, however, but a copy-and-shipping shop in Harlem. The title, Dolphins and Sharks, refers to a life science course one of the characters is taking, but it also serves as an apt metaphor for the "shark tank" in which all of them are forced to swim. The focus is on a group of workers who scrimp, connive, and hustle in order to get by on their unconscionably meager wages. They lack the skills or credentials that will lead them to a better life, and they find themselves ensnared in low-salary jobs under the thumb of a penny-pinching boss who constantly demands more, pays less, and threatens cutbacks at every turn. In brief, they inhabit a universe where, as one of them puts it, what you want takes a distant back burner to "what you gotta do" in order to survive.

Within the copy shop (perfectly rendered by Marsha Ginsberg's detailed set design), the African American and Latino employees try to maintain a pleasant work environment despite growing stresses of office politics, equipment that keeps breaking down, and an off-site white owner who is squeezing the life out of them. Things come to a head when one of the workers, Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez), is made manager, a position for which, it turns out, she is ill equipped.

Although Xiomara has been friendly with everyone, especially with the ebullient Isabel (Pernell Walker), she lacks the personnel skills to live up to her repeated promise to "look out for everybody" once she gets the promotion. Instead, she quickly falls into the trap of being the eyes, ears, and mouthpiece for their boss. Suddenly there are new job requirements, policies regarding lateness, a dress code, and a time clock for punching in and out. Even the TV in a corner no longer shows such distracting fare as Judge Judy and The Price Is Right to give the customers something to look at while waiting for their copies, but merely displays the company's logo.

In this new environment, everything changes. The custodian, Danilo (Cesar J. Rosado) is fired, and Isabel and another worker, Yusuf (Chinaza Uche), are now expected to clean the bathroom as part of their daily end-of-day closing routine. Xiomara is constantly harping at Isabel regarding her outspokenness and her friendliness with the customers. And Yusuf, a college graduate who has little to show for it but enormous debts, turns from a nerdy doofus into an angry young man when Xiomara keeps putting off his pleas to be paid the salary he'd been promised instead of the much lower amount he has been receiving. Quitting is out of the question for any of them; the job market for the underskilled and the underqualified is non-existent.

A real strength of the play lies in the way that the atmosphere changes gradually. The often very funny friendly bantering in the first half of the play devolves later into an ugly series of angry interactions involving race and gender. Xiomara feels she is being dissed because she is female and Latina. Isabel feels she was overlooked for the manager's position because she is African American and overweight. Yusuf and Isabel butt heads over the fact that he is Nigerian and comes from a well-to-do family and therefore, at least in her eyes, he does not understand the lives of the established black residents of Harlem. Also adding to their fraying nerves is a regular customer, Amenze Amen (Tina Fabrique), who uses the shop as her personal office, tying up the computers and manipulating her way into getting free copies of flyers aimed at organizing the community to battle the neighborhood's history-demolishing gentrification.

Charlotte Brathwaite directs all of this with the precision of a choreographer, and the supportive production elements (lighting, sound, costumes, video projections) add their own rich layers to the work. Given the play's socio-cultural themes, it is a great tribute to the playwright and to the cast that everyone "keeps it real," with performances that are completely character-driven. We never lose sight of the individuals involved, and as the play progresses we get to know everyone's story, each of them trying to get by and avoid being eaten by the sharks. In the end, it is Amenze Amen, the community organizer, who urges everyone (including the audience) to stop fighting each other and to collectively take up the tougher challenge.

"The system is not working for everyone," she says. "Are you going to accept this?" Something to ponder as you head home from this powerful play by a rising star of a writer.

Dolphins and Sharks
Through March 19
Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Labyrinth Theater Company

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