By Sharon Eberson
Before the pandemic shone a spotlight on jobs we now think of as essential, playwright Lindsay Joelle focused on those workers who remove our former treasures and stinky trash and allow us to get on with our lives.
Joelle’s The Garbologists, an unconventional buddy comedy about partners in sanitation work, had a reading at City Theatre’s Momentum Festival of new works in 2019 and was seen at the Philadelphia Theatre Company earlier this year. The play continued to evolve as it entered previews as City’s season-closing play, opening Friday, May 6.
‘Lindsay has made many, many rewrites. She’s a fantastic writer,” said Bria Walker, who reprises her role as Marlowe from the Momentum reading. “She’ll be in rehearsal, and she’s listening and asking questions, she’s asking Clare [Drobot] questions as the dramaturg, and then she goes away for a day, and the pages she brings back are amazing. She’s hilarious, she’s incredibly intelligent, she’s very giving and collaborative. And so, the script has evolved and become more multifaceted. It has become even more alive than it was in that first draft that I read many years ago.”
Walker’s partner in the two-hander, Jason Babinsky, confirmed that the show that City patrons will see in Pittsburgh “is a whole new script from what they did in Philadelphia, and … I just got new pages today. It’s constantly in flux,”
That’s a compliment, not a complaint, from Babinsky, known for TV shows such as The Good Wife and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and stage work, including Pittsburgh CLO’s Doctor Doolittle and Brigadoon.
The new scenes confirm …
Babinsky plays Danny, a veteran who knows all the tricks of the trade and then some. Walker, an actress, and educator who is an assistant professor and head of Performance and MFA Performance Pedagogy at the University of Pittsburgh, portrays Ivy Leaguer and newcomer Marlowe.
He is outwardly a stereotypical testosterone-fueled white urban male; she is a Black female-identifying woman in a job where, in 2019, males represented nearly 80 percent of sanitation workers in the United States.
They are built to clash, which is one of the things that attracted Babinsky to the role.
“I love it when people who may not have any chance to connect are forced together by a job or a circumstance or a location, those places where you run into people where you normally wouldn’t,” he said. “I feel like with this, with what Lindsay’s done, the Marlowe character is such an outsider to that world that she’s a really good person to navigate with the veteran Danny how these two worlds collide.”
It’s a scenario “ripe for comedy” but also to shed light on the bonds that may form when one takes the time to gain insight into another point of view.
“It’s communication in a world where no one connects, no one talks. It’s truly lovely,” Babinsky said.
To prepare for their roles, Babinsky and Walker each rode with Pittsburgh sanitation workers on the job. He was with a garbage truck crew on the South Side Slopes; she was with a recycling crew in the Flats. They compared notes afterward and realized they had different experiences, not just navigating a truck on the Slopes vs. almost anywhere else.
“It was rainy that day, and so everything was very wet, which for recycling makes things heavy,” Walker said. “There’s bags and things like that, but there’s boxes and paper, and that stuff gets heavier when it’s wet. With recycling it’s more about the amount of things as opposed to the actual weight of it. So it’s a lot of cardio. That’s one thing I learned about recycling as opposed to trash. You’re picking up a lot of things and going back and forth to the truck, whereas a garbage truck it’s heavier and grosser. It’s stinkier.”
How garbage and recyclables are picked up and tossed is viewed as something of an art form by some if you go by the YouTube videos devoted to it.
One shared experience was the camaraderie and trust of the workers with each other and members of the community.
“One thing I learned is they really know each other, they know their routes and the people on that route, and the people know them. The average shift is from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and there are kids waiting for them in some places,” Walker said.
The workers who drive through the same neighborhoods each week are often embraced as part of those communities.
And, observed Walker, it is obvious that “They enjoy being sanitation workers. They are proud to help keep society going.”
Babinsky said he had done some blue-collar work in Illinois, where he is from. His father worked on the railroad and got him a cleaning job there. But this was a very different sort of cleanup, and navigating narrow streets was an impressive feat to the novice picker-upper.
The foremen who gave the actors their assignments also gave them tips about the funniest parts of the job.
“They brought up so many comedic elements, having never read or seen the play, things they said we’d better have. And Lindsay already had them covered,” Babinsky said.
For the ride-along, the biggest lesson he learned was to stand clear as the machine’s jaws went to work.
“It makes perfect sense what can happen as things are crushed up,” he said. “As an example, the guys had an 8-foot cat tower, and as it was crushed, pieces came flying out. You don’t think about that – I’ve never sat behind a garbage truck and watched it eat before.”
Walker had hoped to meet one of the few female “throwers” – garbage truck workers – for her ride-along, but their schedules didn’t allow for it.
“As someone who identifies as a female, in this job as a female, you feel like you have to prove yourself – that I can throw; that I can lift; that I can pull my physical weight,” Walker said.
“Because there are men looking at you, like, ‘I’ve got this girl on my route.’ Everybody has this strength test they have to pass, so when you are out on the route, and there are bulk items, if you can’t carry your own, it’s going to be a problem. Or if someone perceives that you can’t, it’s a problem.”
The job itself is a big part of “The Garbologists,” but the characters’ lives outside of work and how they reveal that part of themselves is just as important.
One thing that you won’t hear is a mention of the pandemic that delayed this play from making it to the City Theatre stage for nearly two years.
“We discussed that, but no, we are putting it right before the pandemic,” Babinsky said. “Lindsay had a lot of great things to say about the crucial work sanitation workers do and that they were kind of overlooked as essential workers. If you [put it in the pandemic], it becomes a whole other thing, so she chose to not do that.”‘
“Live theater coming back in and of itself is great,” said Walker, who wrote a Post-Gazette op-ed in February of last year about how much in-person performance was missed during the pandemic, including studies that “have shown that the arts are powerful tools for well-being.”
“Now that we’re finally getting back to it, artists are ready,” Walker said just as “The Garbologists” was about to have its first preview and mark the end of the City Theatre’s first full, in-person season since the pandemic began in March of 2020.
Walker is relishing the ability to showcase new work, particularly this work, she said, because “it is an homage to essential workers. I think it’s beautiful, and I count it as an honor to be able to play this role of Marlowe.”
The Garbologists, directed by Monteze Freeland, is a co-world premiere with Philadelphia Theatre Company. On City Theatre’s Mainstage through May 22. Tickets and details: https://citytheatre.culturaldistrict.org/production/75728/the-garbologists
MOMENTUM FESTIVAL ’22
City Theatre last week announced the return of the Momentum New Play Festival, which had been on a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Momentum ’22 will run May 16-21, overlapping with The Garbolgists, and feature public readings of three new plays in progress, as well as a playwright’s “open mic.”
Playwrights include Ty Greenwood, the first artist to receive a commission from the Kemp Powers Commission Fund for Black Playwrights. City Theatre produced a top-notch production of Powers’ “One Night in Miami” in 2019.
This year’s festival also marks a first-time collaboration between City and Project-Y Theatre Company to present an immersive play experience by Lia Romeo, plus a new play by City co-artistic director Clare Drobot, and the Playwright’s Slam, hosted by the Dramatists Guild Regional Representative, TJ Young. This will be the first public reading of Keyword: Wander, developed by Drobot during a residency at the Hangar Theatre’s AIRS program.
All Momentum readings are free and open to the public, with registration required. For the schedule and to register, visit CityTheatreCompany.org or call 412-431-CITY (2489).
Categories: Show Previews