The most significant message I take from Labyrinth Theater Company’s production of Dolphins and Sharks is that a certain kind of economic ecosystem compels us to make limiting choices: to take on the role of amoral, mercenary predator or pro-social, nurturing, even protective community member. When the play opens, we don’t know that its environment will pressure the characters of the Harlem Office print shop — Isabel, who’s been there for six years; Danilo, the always-late janitor; Yusuf, the young NYU graduate desperate for a paying job; Amenze Amen, who frequents the shop to get her work done; and Xiomara, the Dominican woman who becomes the store manager — to choose from this narrow menu. But it does. Playwright James Anthony Tyler cranks up the heat under the pot in which they collectively boil with some very obvious, incendiary devices: differences of race, social class, immigrant status, body shape, gender, and personal ambition. The play begins with a surreal dance in subdued blue light as all the characters mime picking cotton and cutting sugar cane. It’s powerful, but we don’t need it to know what’s at stake and what histories are always knocking at the door.
Directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, Dolphins and Sharks centers on the necessity of wage labor and the human relations our system engenders. It’s about people like me, who have to sell our services in order to pay off school loans, to provide a home for a baby, to keep a family afloat after a husband loses his job, to climb the socio-economic ladder. If you’re sensitive to class differences and their pernicious effects, Xiomara is the worst one, the sellout. She and Isabel are friends until she applies for and receives the promotion to manager. Subsequently, she becomes emotionally absent, a driver of corporate dehumanization. She insists on using the hollow management language of “professionalism” to assuage her own guilt and fear, and Isabel’s anger.
But the behind the scenes, the puppet master, business owner Mr. Timmons — whom we never see — represents the power structure itself. The play makes clear how this structure forces increasingly distasteful choices on all the workers, whether deciding to become a mercenary shark to survive; or stealing from the man, as Yusuf does; or taking back your time from the capitalist machinery, as Danilo does; or losing yourself in human interaction, as Isabel chooses to do.
What twisted the knife in my insides, however, was realizing that the differences between the characters — in size, race, nationality, ambition — only became problems because of their competition with each other for employment and promotion within the Harlem Office. In another context, being overweight and black would not hinder Isabel’s advancement, but here it means that, despite being extremely skilled at customer service, she’ll never get the management job for which she applied four times. The limits of individual agency in the working world become clearer when you see them like this, in cross-section. Disparity is only a difficulty because our particular economic system insists on workers’ homogenization.
Dolphins and Sharks makes it plain that, when we are in the throes of this system, our individual politics are cruelly myopic — we can’t see beyond our own success or failure. This play is filled with regular folks, lying to and manipulating each other to get another crumb that falls from the wealthy person’s table. And we end up angry at one or more of the characters because they steal more crumbs. But the manipulation should be obvious, and we should be angry at the structure itself, which is always rigged to make our choices personal, to make us choose which colleagues to despise. The anger will remain until we can find the tools by which the grab the structure and shake it until it falls to pieces.
The Labyrinth Theater Company’s Dolphins and Sharks continues at the Bank Street Theater (155 Bank Street, West Village, Manhattan) through March 19.