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By Mike Fischer
You just never know when inspiration will strike.
Or how it might lead to a dramedy like The Garbologists featuring characters like Marlowe and Danny, the mismatched pair of workers you can encounter in Forward Theater’s season-opening production as they pick up trash on the streets of New York City.
Playwright Lindsay Joelle was on a weekend getaway when she met a sanitation worker, the husband of a friend. “He was just a person who really surprised me,” Joelle later recalled.
“I found that I had a lot of preconceptions that were just off-target about who’s drawn to this career and what the career is like,” Joelle continued. What she encountered instead was a college graduate who’d abandoned a prior career in audio engineering for the excellent pay and benefits sanitation workers frequently receive, given how critical and perilous their jobs are.
“It can be dangerous,” a sanitation worker said to Studs Terkel, in one of the oral histories included in Terkel’s Working (1972). “You never know what people throw out. I’ve seen acid thrown out.”
As with the workers Eyal Press interviews in his searing Dirty Work (2021), sanitation workers are also largely invisible – or made so, by a public that consistently denies its own connection to jobs involving what’s considered dirty and shameful.
“They feel like nobody wants to hear about sanitation,” Joelle said of the workers she’d interviewed during her research for The Garbologists.
“A lot of them felt that when they’re in uniform . . . people don’t notice them,” Joelle continued, even though “we all see garbage trucks several times during our day . . . picking up our trash to keep our streets clean or keep our cities free from disease.”
“This city thinks we’re invisible,” Danny says to Marlowe. “People put their crap out on the curb and think it’s gone. They think the Garbage Fairies take it away in the middle of the night. Poof! Street’s clean.”
One of the many virtues of The Garbologists, unfolding within an American theater ecosystem that rarely focuses on manual labor, is that it will allow you to see what sanitation workers do. Equally important, it will also allow Marlowe and Danny, stuck with each other in the cab of a garbage truck, to gradually see each other.
The Odd Couple
When we first meet them in their garbage truck on a wintry Monday morning, Marlowe is a rookie on her first run; Danny is a nine-year veteran. Marlowe is a reserved Black woman; Danny is a white mansplainer who can’t shut up. Marlowe is Ivy-educated; Danny’s education comes from the streets. Marlowe reads The New York Times; Danny reads the Staten Island Advance.
Much like the confining cab in which they sit as they make their rounds, Danny and Marlowe are boxed in – by the assumptions they make of each other and by the preconceptions informing how we see them.
But not for long.
As is always true when people actually take the time to listen to each other, this unlikely duo will gradually learn they’ve got far more in common than they’d realized, above and beyond the cocky, know-it-all attitude that both of them bring to their initial encounter – and that too many of us bring to our comfortably prejudged and politically prepackaged understanding of the world.
“A theme that defines everything I write,” Joelle has observed, “is taking people that seem at first glance very ‘other’ – either to each other or to the audience or both – and then seeing how quickly you can forget they are ‘other’ and put yourselves in their shoes and feel like you are on this journey with them.
“By the end,” she continued, “you have an increased awareness and increased empathy.”
No longer boxed in – and no longer pigeonholing each other – Marlowe and Danny are given the chance to break out and run free. Can they? Will they? You’ll need to come see the play for answers to such questions.
It’s enough, for now, to pose another question worth pondering in advance: how much better might we do in this hatefully and hopelessly divided nation if we could similarly stop boxing each other in and actually pay attention to one another?
I write these words days after watching the American Players Theatre production of America’s greatest play: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (longtime Forward Advisory Company member Sarah Day is magnificent as the Stage Manager, but I digress). It has a great deal in common with The Garbologists, which says a great deal about what Joelle is trying to do in her play.
Our Town has itself been boxed in by overly sentimentalized productions serving up another slice of old-fashioned Americana rather than portraying the town Wilder actually envisioned.
The busybodies in Grover’s Corners are provincial, close-minded and smug – friendly and nice enough, in that quintessentially Midwestern way, but also frequently cold and judgmental. They’re not interested in culture, and they’re not curious about the poor, the different, and the troubled. They’re good at talking about weather, but not so good at talking about what matters.
“They’re sort of shut up in little boxes, aren’t they?,” Emily asks in the climactic final act, as she realizes how “blind” humans are. “We don’t have time to look at one another,” Emily mourns. “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.”
In Our Town, Emily’s epiphany comes too late, after she’s already been confined to the little box in which she’ll spend all eternity.
In The Garbologists, Joelle urges us to wake up to the larger world while we’re still alive and can make a difference, by thinking outside the box in how we see ourselves and our neighbors.
Will we live our lives imprisoned in those little boxes made of ticky tacky that Pete Seeger once sang about, each one all the same? Or might we embrace our differences so that we can truly come together, building a town that we can collectively and proudly claim as our own?
The Garbologists runs from September 7-24. For more information and tickets, visit https://forwardtheater.com/show/the-garbologists.