“America… is called the land of liberty, but in no other country on earth does a man tremble before his fellow man like here.”
Italian American worker and anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti (of Sacco and Vanzetti fame) wrote these words in the early 1900s, well before his trial and 1927 execution in Massachusetts on a trumped-up murder charge. Judging from what we see in “In the Back/On the Floor””—a harrowing if uneven play based on writer Ken Green’s personal experience working in a big-box chain store—too little has changed in the intervening century.
The minimum-wage workplace depicted in this world-premiere drama is a nightmare of tedious toil, endless surveillance and absolute disrespect. Governed by fear and frequent reminders of their disposability, the unloaders and shelvers employed at a Walmart-like retail operation can regain their individual dignity only by asserting their collective interest and forming a union. But that act of basic empowerment is deemed a cardinal sin by the company. Why? Because it would spoil the “family feeling” that supposedly flows between employees and the eight or ten levels of hierarchy standing on top of them, ranging from the assistant manager who hassles them constantly all the way up to the “executive leadership leader” who exerts godlike control from far above.
If director Rachel Van and her cast of nine make one point in this ninety-five-minute-long, intermissionless play, it’s that when the boss starts talking about “family,” it’s time to run, fast, in the opposite direction. As cleverly portrayed in the “training video” that runs through the show—featuring Loredan Krug and Ashley-Marie Chavez as actors impersonating anti-union corporate spokespersons, who smugly declare that “the more rules we have, the more efficiently we can work”—“family” means treating workers as wayward children who can function only when tightly managed and cruelly manipulated. At the mythical “Home Base” store, this means that the reward for meeting unrealistic work targets is the occasional “taco party” catered by the employees themselves, as the assistant manager lacks the authority to dispense cash bonuses. In the ostensibly fun, team-centered, ever-positive world of the mega-corporation, wage slavery is transmuted into a perverse kind of exploitainment.
It’s impossible to watch “In the Back/On the Floor” and not feel sympathy for the major characters—including even the uptight, by-the-book supervisor Donna (Katherine Schwartz, in a nuanced performance)—as well as rage at the system that strips them of self-worth and hope. There are many sharply painful moments in the play, but perhaps the most wrenching is when Wally (played with convincing nice-guy equanimity by Peter Leondedis), an older employee, is told by Donna that he can’t take a call from the hospital about his ailing wife during working hours because he hadn’t first cleared the call with his superiors—as though emergencies could be scheduled in advance. And then there’s the case of Jose (a quietly smoldering Juan Conde Belmares), the hardworking employee who sincerely believes that if he just puts in the requisite effort, he will climb the ladder of success in Horatio Alger fashion. This claim is disputed by the big-mouthed, sardonic Carlos (a volatile Jorge Aguilar), who tells Jose that only white floor workers are ever promoted, and that their selfish and lazy—but Caucasian—coworker Foley (a suitably punky Caleb Lee Jenkins) is far more likely to get the nod. Rounding out the solid cast are Jelani Julyus as Larry, a Black shelf stocker with a white-collar background who claims to be working only for beer money, and who memorably loses his cool only toward the end in a confrontation with an abusive customer; and Kairis Rivera as single mother Wanda, whose own last-straw moment comes when the faceless bean-counters who call the shots take away the workers’ one and only perquisite: free coffee in the break room.
With its strong performances, crisp direction, simple but serviceable set (crammed with a slightly surreal array of identical empty white boxes) courtesy of designer Jonathan Berg-Einhorn and effectively unobtrusive lighting by Eric Cope, “In the Back/On the Floor” should qualify as a knockout show. What holds it back are the script’s significant but fixable lapses of pacing and tone. The play’s early scenes are often twice as long as they need to be, reiterating and underscoring plot points that should be made swiftly and lightly. The first half is almost pure setup, with little buildup of suspense. Only later does the rhythm of the scenes quicken and the narrative gather steam. A more epic structure—with pared-down, episodic scenes designed to convey outward conflict and situation rather than character shading and emotion—would work better in what is, at bottom, an agitprop play arguing the pressing need to democratize oppressive, degrading workplaces. In addition, we get too much of Carlos—the whiny, foul-mouthed cynic who instantly and improbably morphs into a working-class hero—and too little of the perspective of other characters, including Wanda and Larry. Even the bland, apple-polishing Foley deserves more say, if only to bring out the workers’ differing perspectives and hone their debates.
“In the Back/On the Floor” isn’t a perfect drama, but it is a timely and compelling one, as debt-burdened service workers increasingly launch organizing drives and the fight for a living wage continues. (On the federal level, the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour hasn’t risen since 2009, while inflation skyrockets.) With a sharper focus and a bit more polish, “In the Back/On the Floor” could be more than just a better, more engaging play. It could be a real weapon in the ongoing battle for workplace fairness and decency.
“In the Back/On the Floor” Stage Left at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago, (773)883-8830, stagelefttheatre.com, $30-$40. Through May 28.