James Anthony Tyler prefaces his new play, Dolphins and Sharks, with a quote from the early 20th century American lawyer, Louis Brandeis: “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” It offers a tidy summation of Tyler’s concerns in this fast and furious morality tale about contemporary socioeconomic relations, at the scale of a fictional copy shop in Harlem. With five sharply drawn characters and Tyler’s quick wit, Dolphins and Sharks is a blisteringly funny comedy, but the writer’s intentions are less to amuse than to instruct. With the help of some obvious didactic flourishes, the play articulates just such a “democratic” response to social and racial inequality in these United States that, as Brandeis reminds us, were built on bootstrap individualism.
For anyone who skips the program notes, which also include an aphorism from Confucius, the show opens with a pantomime that draws Tyler’s message in football-field-broad strokes: the characters, one of whom wears a heavy chain around his neck, mimic picking cotton and seem to wince under the lashes of an imaginary whip, while a photo montage flashes images of lynchings, segregation and the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Tyler has done some hand-picking himself, carefully choosing a quintet of five Americans of color to present a microcosm of race and socioeconomics in America: two Dominicans (scrappy, with no means but big dreams), two African Americans (resigned, with immense personal dignity but no illusions about making it up the ladder) and one Nigerian American (college educated, and taught by his accountant parents that African immigrants have nothing in common with African Americans).
The setting is equally symbolic: 125th Street between boulevards Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Frederick Douglass – that it to say, in the same block as the iconic Apollo Theater and metaphorically sandwiched between New York’s first African American congressman and the US’s first African American statesman and civil rights activist. The time is a four month span, between May and August 2014, when momentum was building to save another Harlem landmark, the abandoned Renaissance Theater – synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance – from the wrecker’s ball (it was demolished in early 2015). To borrow an expression from the street corner games of chance that can still be found in that same neighborhood, Tyler’s deck is stacked.
Yet it’s hard to mind his heavy hand since he deals us one ace after the other in this Labyrinth Theater production. There’s Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez), a bouncy, confident, sharp-tongued Latina “sales associate,” whom we meet interviewing Yusuf (Chinaza Uche), a nerdy philosophy student freshly graduated from NYU who is desperate for a job to make rent. They’ll be joined by Isabel (Pernell Walker), Harlem Office’s take-no-prisoners, trash-talking senior employee, from whom we’ll learn that this smart, hard-working, late-thirties Black mother of three has never been trusted with any responsibilities in her six years in the job. She perseveres because her minimum-wage salary helps keep her family afloat and because she and Xiomara are sometimes partners in crime, borrowing from the till when they’re short on cash, and even framing a despised store manager for it. They form a close-knit group, rounded out by Danilo (Cesar J. Rosado), the shop’s custodian, and Ms. Amenze (Tina Fabrique), a long-time Harlem resident, who comes into the shop to use the computer for her continuing education classes and to make flyers (with the understanding that Isabel will let her have them gratis) in her campaign to save the Renaissance.
The most “important” character however, meaning the one with the most influence, is never seen yet he is the subject of all conversations. This is Mr. Timmons, the copy shop’s (white) owner, who wields immense economic leverage over the rest of them, in the form of employment, promotions, wages, and even those free copies. Now that the office manager position is open again, and because Xiomara wants it (and, as Isabel admits bluntly, “Because [Timmons’] flat white ass ain’t hiring nobody fat and black”), those same economics will upend the family dynamic at Harlem Office to become the cutthroat story of Dolphins and Sharks.
But once all these elements are in place, that story is predictable, pitting Xiomara’s ambitions against everyone else’s hopes and needs, against a backdrop of creeping gentrification of the neighborhood. Rather than reveal too much, I’ll quote Isabel again, as she dissuades Danilo from trying to enroll in the police academy: “It seem like the NYPD has a way of making people of color forget where they come from. Trust me, I know power changes folks.” It’s Tyler’s message in a nutshell.
Indeed, Tyler and director Charlotte Brathwaite aren’t afraid of calling a spade a spade in this production that gives “wage slavery” a fully developed, literal reading (after a first, 10-minute iteration in the 2015 Fire This Time festival). Protesting the low pay and long hours at Harlem Office, Isabel states the case in unequivocal terms: “We ain’t tryin’ to be twelve years a slave up in this bitch!”
Brathwaite continues in the same spirit, bringing the excellent cast downstage before each act and at the play’s close, to preach Tyler’s message straight to the audience. Tyler has the cast sing “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave & the Master)” at the start of Act Two – “but still we choose to ignore the obvious / We are the slave and the master / What you lookin’ for / You the question and the answer” – and Brathwaite has the actors stylize the lines according to his or her own interpretation – angry, traumatized, cynical – while standing practically nose to nose with us. Since the performance takes place in a convincingly naturalistic Fed Ex type space (Marsha Ginsberg’s set) that is familiar to everyone, the audience, which sits on risers at arms length from the cast, can easily feel part of the problem (summarized by a poster proclaiming “TOP NOTCH PROFESSIONAL SERVICE” and depicting a white male clerk helping a white male client) or hopefully feel inspired to be part of the solution. Ms. Amenze acts rather obviously as the show’s moral compass and points the way to redemption in the show’s final minutes, questioning the others: “This system not working for everyone. Are you going to accept this?”
The play’s elliptical title is similarly easy to crack, and Ms. Amenze’s explanation of ocean ecosystems in the second act feels like force feeding; the shark metaphor for business entrepreneurs is a little tired by now thanks to Shark Tank, as are the “wolves of Wall Street” and all the other predator analogies you can think of. Yes, the big more aggressive fish eat the littler more peaceable ones in that big sea of life and survival in the socioeconomic food chain. Tyler proposes, however, that we stop trying to “fight over crumbs,” and instead realize our inner dolphin – that highly intelligent and sensitive creature – and band together to build our communities in our own image and with our own values, rather than be drawn into a blood bath, as Xiomara naively is. It’s a message of strength in numbers that we are waking to all over the country to champion a multitude of causes and that, in Tyler’s formulation, falls on more sympathetic ears than he might have imagined a year ago.
Dolphins and Sharks is a whip-smart look at race and class – one that frequently smarts, too. The actors are a real treat to watch, led by opposing forces Flor De Liz Perez and Pernell Walker. Perez takes Xiomara from a devil-may-care entry level employee to a mightily conflicted young professional and we feel her pain, while Walker pulls off the feat of making the crudely foul-mouthed, so totally un-PC Isabel completely endearing. Broadway veteran Tina Fabrique leads the musical numbers. Brathwaite’s direction exposes successive layers of the characters’ turmoil in the cast’s strong performances but also in another sustained metaphor involving malfunctioning copiers that adds a fantastical touch to the office drama. Tyler might overplay his hand at times, but we all cash in on the chips of his stinging dialogue and mordant exploration of ambition, race and class.
If Tyler’s references are reliable and his instincts are true, maybe one day we’ll hit the democratic jackpot as a land ruled by and for the people no matter the size of their wallets, where there are only dolphins, no sharks, and smooth sailing for all. Since it’s not looking that way these days, Dolphins and Sharks is a welcome buoy for now.