Seeing the Screenplay Reading of Nickel and Dimed

Every time I've attended, I find the Hornets' Nest series script-in-hand readings at Nextstage at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to be evocative and fascinating. Today's performance was of Nickel and Dimed by Joan Holden. It's based on Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and continues the first-person memoir-style of the source material.

The gist is that Ehrenreich is an essayist who, in 1998 and 1999, left her comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle to try and make it as an unskilled worker in America. She did three experiments in different parts of the country; each time she attempted to find work under the best circumstances. What she found was that she was not able to hack it. The short of it is that minimum wage is not a living wage for a single person, so she was doomed to failure by attempting to both find shelter and food on those wages, succeeding only when she worked two jobs 7 days a week.

I was not particularly surprised by any anecdotal facts presented. Perhaps it was people like Ehrenreich who opened this world to me so I can say that now, or perhaps it was my own observations. Nonetheless, I wasn't "shocked" to hear that cleaning people don't know how safe the cleaning products were, or that some people innovate by living in their car at a hotel parking lot to save on housing costs, or that single mothers can'tt afford the luxury of competent child care. Through the narrative, I found myself empathizing with … er, no: pitying them.

Because I wasn't shocked, I did have a hard time understanding the perspective of Barbara (Ehrenreich's narrator character). It seemed she was constantly appalled that people didn't have luxuries that she did, or that some people had to do jobs that she found distasteful. I wondered, looking around at my fellow attendees whose demographics were dominated by 50 to 70-year-olds, if there really was others who believed like Barbara? But, as it was revealed later, only a few people among the several hundred in attendance had ever even hired cleaning staff. Apparently Barbara was not as similar to this theater's audience as expected.

Afterward, I was disappointed to realize that nothing has particularly changed in 10 years and I wondered, as always, how can I help fix this? As I mentioned in the discussion that followed, I think it's an absolute myth that people will seek the cheapest prices on everything. As it stands, I look for local goods made and sold by independently-owned small businesses using quality, responsible parts or ingredients. And, if I had a way of knowing, I'd add "with workers who all earn at least a living wage." I have weaned myself from the allure of dollar-store garbage, and now look for quality and reliability: and I'm willing to pay many times more than the cheapest version of whatever I seek. But maybe I'm as myopic as Ehrenreich — that I'm the only one out there.

And finally, despite my best efforts, I found I gravitated toward Barbara's point-of-view more than I thought. When I left, I stopped by Lux LoungeMySpace link (666 South Ave.) and I couldn't help but look at my friends in a different light. With such a diverse crowd, I know some earn enough, but others might just be scraping by on whatever work they can get. Eventually I realized what I think Ehrenreich missed: money isn't the most important thing for everyone else. Although they have their share of frustration and challenge without enough, they don't wallow in the misery Barbara expected in the play's other characters.

[P.S. Yes, this was posted on Friday after the main page was updated.  If you noticed, I can't speak to whether that makes you not crazy.]

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Back of the Throat at Geva Nextstage

Ali and I went to Nextstage at Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the first screenplay reading of The Hornets' Nest series: Back of the Throat by Yussef el Guindi. In it, a man of Middle-Eastern descent (Khaled) is being questioned by two federal agents (Bartlett and Carl) shortly after September 11, 2001. The agents are not charging Khaled with any particular crime and Khaled — an American citizen — is glad to help in any way he can until the agents start to become suspicious.

Popular media teaches us that police officers know who's guilty and they just need to shake out the right information to catch the crooks. In reality, they are not nearly as prescient as a scriptwriter. When the illusion of prescience is lost, the whole process of open-ended interrogation works only to blur the difference between the innocent and the guilty rather than to help define it.

Regardless of whether Khaled is innocent or guilty, as the questioning continues, he appears defensive which looks both like innocence and like guilt. So as a tool for divining the innocent from the guilty, this is a particularly poor one. Worse, though, is that the agents become more confident in their belief that Khaled is guilty, so they press further, and the more defensive he becomes, the more they feel he's guilty and uncooperative.

In some ways I find the script-in-hand readings more powerful than a performance. When an action or object is described briefly in words, it has a naturally ambiguous realization — whereas in an actual performance, the actions and objects are all specific, concrete examples. So in a case like this, the ambiguity echoed and amplified the overall effect, making for a very disturbing reading.

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