Gnarled hands swipe chemicals across the floor. Clots of blood and bone, macramed between the blades and coils of antique slaughterhouse machinery, need to be cleaned, the works sterilized before the unseen boss’s new sausage line can go into production in the morning. Somebody’s gotta do it, and tonight, for 90 minutes, we’ll see who does it and how it’s done. The unheroic, degrading condition of the underpaid menial temp worker is the subject of British playwright and director Alexander Zeldin’s Beyond Caring, which is being presented at Lookingglass in a form revised from its original 2014 run at the National Theatre in London. This is muckraking political art, bathed in the same uncompromising light as Upton Sinclair’s Bubbly Creek and Orwell’s pigsties. Alive to the complexity of human suffering, it urges a new awareness of the most dire and invisible struggles in society today.
The big change to this incarnation of Zeldin’s show is in its faces. The original production was created with European working conditions in mind, partly inspired, Zeldin has said, by the investigative work of French journalist Florence Aubenas. The typical group of French or British low-wage workers is a mix of continental and immigrant nationalities, but the American crew at Lookingglass is two black women and a black man, a Hispanic woman, and a white overseer. It will be lost on very few audience members what sort of regime of control this power dynamic seeks to represent: the specter of slavery, a far more insistent ghost in American culture than in England, broods ferociously over the entire room. Once you know that these people are in the belly of a meat processing plant, it never escapes notice that their work space (to call it that—and to call this “work” and not something else, like, for example, “bondage”) puts them just feet away from the killing floor. Boss Ian (Keith D. Gallagher) wields his clipboard and Monster Energy Zero Ultra tallboy with undeserved aplomb over his sweaty charges’ bent necks. Yet Ian is obviously a shrimp in the chain of command, implicated in savage systemic forces much larger than any one man. Ian’s cruelty as a manager isn’t lost on Gallagher, but he wisely steers Ian away from maniacal slave-master territory and toward something more like a crass boss on a midnight power trip.
And as Phil (Edwin Lee Gibson), the most experienced and least talkative hand on the floor, puts it, “This ain’t what I thought I’d be doing,” which goes for everybody from Ian on down. There is no exit, no days off. These are temp workers—paychecks may come Friday, Tuesday, or not at all. As a pair of hands and two working feet you are expendable, replaceable, and with one slip of the bleach nozzle, it could all be over for you. Signs of tenderness are signs of weakness, something Phil discovers in a scene that I won’t spoil—though it may remind readers of the distinction drawn in Toni Morrison’s Beloved between lovemaking and “rutting among the headstones.”
For all its political weight, the play is remarkably free of overt moralizing. It shows you the way things are, and they aren’t, let’s face it, good. Tracy (J. Nicole Brooks) is no Dickensian waif. Slumped on a pile of boxes, she’s a truculent, fed-up mom who blares Lil Yachty at full blast on her cell-phone speakers during breaks. Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore) and Sonia (Wendy Mateo, who’s excellent in the role) share snacks without speaking after Ebony-Grace offers gas-station cookies to Sonia, who pockets six as though she hasn’t seen food in days. Make no mistake—these are human beings with hearts and minds. Under freer conditions, with fresh air and a little daylight, there’d be plenty to discuss. But there’s nothing much to say by hour six of a graveyard shift, so they push the mops across the gray expanse of floor mostly in silence, rattled only by Ian’s hollering for efficiency.
Though it doesn’t ask to be enjoyed, Beyond Caring is a deeply moving indictment of oppression. With utter clarity, it harkens a day of reckoning for the lives it honors. v
Correction: This review has amended to correctly reflect the playwright’s name. It is Alexander Zeldin, not Alexander Zelkin.