What do you do when you’re trapped in a dead-end, minimum wage job ruled by a string of unsympathetic managers? Such is the plight of the coworkers in the Labyrinth Theater Company’s Dolphins and Sharks, a stunning new play that examines the conflicting perspectives and variant struggles of four coworkers struggling to scrape by.
In the Harlem office of a printing and computer chain, Xiomara Yepez (Flor De Liz Perez) and Isabel Peters (Pernell Walker) have worked together for years. They’ve seen a series of bad managers come and go, sometimes prodding them closer to leaving by making them look bad to their supervisor through tricks like borrowing subway money from the cash register. When the latest fired manager leaves a vacancy, Xiomara applies for and ultimately gets the manager position.
Determined to change things and make a better path for herself, Xiomara struggles to bridge the demands of the store supervisor, who’s never actually around, with the needs of her now-subordinates, the defiant Isabel and rule-abiding Yusuf Nwachukwu (Chinaza Uche), a new hire recently graduated from NYU. Amidst a store full of malfunctioning printers, tensions rise between the underpaid employees as they point the finger at each other. With all of them struggling to make ends meet in a thankless workplace where the responsibilities and strains pile up relentlessly, it seems impossible that they’ll all manage to keep their jobs.
In a superb examination of the intersections between race and socioeconomic class, playwright James Anthony Tyler’s work opens up the internal workings of a customer service job, questioning the validity of a system in which it is impossible for any of the players to win. Tyler crafts nuanced characters supported by sharp dialogue who play off each other well, bringing the internal tensions of the play to sparkling heights.
Of course, those tensions are brought higher still through the cast’s excellent performances, skillfully directed by Charlotte Brathwaite. As the dissatisfied-employee-turned-ambitious-manager, Flor De Liz Perez shines as Xiomara Yepez, the center of the office’s newfound tensions. Chinaza Uche and Pernell Walker express those central conflicts beautifully, as they portray the two employees who disagree on how to handle Xiomara’s authority. Playing the janitor and delighted soon-to-be father, Cesar J. Rosado delivers one of the show’s most nuanced performances, providing the most poignant image of the impact the workplace has on the lives of its employees. Balancing these four as the play’s voice of reason, Tina Fabrique steals the show as Amenze Amen, a regular customer who grows steadily more horrified at the constant in-fighting.
Moving and profound, Dolphins and Sharks grows beyond the four walls of the chain supply store where it takes place, touching with humor and grace on what happens when a system pits the powerless against each other.