America has always pitted the powerless against one another, forcing the economically disadvantaged to compete for scarce resources while those on top remain there. James Anthony Tyler’s smart new play, Dolphins and Sharks, produced by Labyrinth Theater Company and expertly directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, stages this tragic dynamic in microcosm: a Harlem copy shop becomes the crucible for surging tensions over race, class, and economic opportunity, offering humane insight into historical forces of vast proportions.
Yusuf (Chinaza Uche) is fresh out of college and working his first real job: customer service at Harlem Office, a far cry from his NYU philosophy classes. He can’t resist dropping the odd reference to Rousseau, or to his ambitions for a Ph.D. — to the irritation of copy shop veterans Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez) and Isabel (Pernell Walker). For them, Harlem Office is a livelihood, not a way station en route to fancier things. When a management position opens up, deeper tensions emerge: Isabel, who has seniority, doesn’t apply, but Xiomara does, soon finding herself uncomfortably enforcing the profit-driven policies of the store’s offstage white owner.
Under the pressure of this new power hierarchy, the initially boisterous camaraderie among the employees curdles, and racial rifts surface. There’s mutual prejudice between Yusuf, raised in New York by Nigerian parents, and Isabel, a black American. Then, too, Isabel believes Xiomara’s been promoted because she’s Dominican (Isabel, it turns out, has been turned down for manager many times), and Xiomara rankles at Isabel’s casual Latina slurs. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of a gentrifying Harlem, where historically black institutions are under threat and the racial and economic landscape is shifting fast.
Meanwhile, surreal theatrical flourishes remind us of deeper histories still. At the beginning of each act, the company performs the choreographed gestures of a chain gang; music plays, and the shop’s TV screens display images from America’s racial past — slavery, sharecropping, segregation. The copy machines themselves occasionally go haywire mid-scene, erupting in unsettling displays of bright light and staticky sound, as if to remind us that the advance of technology, too, will threaten the jobs and lives at stake.
Dolphins and Sharks owes much of its power to Brathwaite’s stellar production. The ensemble cast is excellent, imbuing their characters with sympathetic detail. The powerhouse design team turns Harlem Office into a richly embodied world, with Marsha Ginsberg’s hyper-realistic set placing us in a deeply recognizable run-down retail space complete with fluorescent light, shabby reddish carpet, and bags of Styrofoam peanuts. Andrew Schneider’s sophisticated video design adds allusive imagery and tracks Harlem Office’s evolving visual brand as the store acquires an increasingly “professional” identity.
The production’s strength lends the play a sophistication it might otherwise sometimes lack. Tyler’s writing is packed with thoughtfully observed psychology, but becomes structurally repetitive in the second act, as screaming matches pile up. Even so, these cyclical arguments bear their own kind of message: Historical inequalities perpetuate themselves through repetition, as the workers lob well-aimed barbs at each other, leaving the unseen owner offstage and unscathed.
Dolphins and Sharks
By James Anthony Tyler
Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street
Through March 19