Bartleby the Scrivener, in Herman Melville’s short story of the same name, was a man of massive silences, who spoke only when his employer asked him to do something. “I would prefer not to,” he would reply. His restraint and dignity gave him an inexplicable power over his environment.
Bartleby the Janitor (D. Scott Graham), on the other hand, can’t shut up. He has opinions about everything. It turns out, despite his humble position description, that he’s an expert on marketing — useful, since he cleans at an ad agency. You can imagine, however, that if he worked at a hospital he would have something to say about microsurgery, and if he cleaned up law offices he would soon be advising on the Rule Against Perpetuities. Notwithstanding, Bartleby the Janitor also acquires inexplicable power — probably because he is a white male, but perhaps because of his miraculous power to cure minor ailments.
This poses a bit of a conundrum to Nicole (Lisa Corley-Hill), who has just landed her first big account — a hair products company aimed at African-American women which has been acquired by a much larger company. Her creative team — tart-tongued and snarky Tamara (Alyse Hamilton), Julia (Anna Huntley), who wears her white guilt like a badge of honor (horrified to discover that her genetic testing has shown that she has exclusively European heritage, she takes it on herself to apologize to her colleagues for all the sins of the white race, in chronological order), and the intern Kim (Ime Essien), whose cloak of indifference hides a much deeper, more profound, indifference — is not so creative.
In pops Bartleby, whistling and grinning. Unprompted, he recommends that the product lose its Black identification and go by a more generic name to broaden its customer base. Nicole kind of likes it, and corporate is satisfied. Soon Bartleby is on the creative team, and a star is born. For extra credit, Bartleby cures a staff member of a migraine.
Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker
closes July 28, 2018
Details and tickets
I could tell you about the rest, but I think you’ve probably guessed it already. Every product line the creative team is asked to develop has racial implications, and Bartleby is there to provide philosophical cover to look the other way.
Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker, by Jeff Reiser and Chinwe Nwosu, is witty enough, although the characters are very broad and the comedy is not terribly subtle. The playwrights prick the foibles of political correctness while at the same time dealing with the moral implications of incorrectness and do a good job on both ends. However, they’ve drawn cartoon characters, and the actors haven’t overcome the limitations of the script.
The principal problem is that the playwrights haven’t really located Bartleby. Is he a lineal descendent of the Scrivener? (He says “I would prefer not to” periodically, but only when things are not going his way). Is he Chance the Janitor, a ninny who has stumbled into a position where everyone else thinks he is a savant? Is he the White Apologist, prepared to defend and excuse white racism whenever it would be to his advantage to do so? Or is he some dime-store Messiah, dispensing common sense along with his miracle cures? The script assigns a little bit of each role to him, resulting in an inconsistent and incomplete character.
The plays goes in a different direction when Nicole’s boss, Steve (Ryan Casey Ewell) shows up for two scenes. Steve is such an aggressive sexual predator that he could be the cause of an independent #Me Three movement. When he talks about “listening with all five senses” while sniffing at Nicole’s staff, we are exploring territory not exploited since the days of Franklin Hart, Jr. in 9 to 5. Steve is as much a cartoon character as anyone else, but Ewell plays the role with such lip-smacking repulsiveness that we enjoy it anyway.
The rest of the cast — not so much so. The way that professional theater, and really good amateur theater, differs from the rest is that the actors seem to be people engaged in real dialogue, even if their characters are drawn broadly. Here, they still seem to be delivering memorized lines. Moreover, in the production I saw, actors (aside from Ewell) were struggling with their lines, and I had a hard time understanding Essien, even though I was in the first row. Of course, this was opening night, and things might get better later in the run.
Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker by Jeff Reiser and Chinwe Nwosu, directed by Jordyn Nicole, featuring Alyse Hamilton, Ime Essien, Anna Huntley, Lisa Corley-Hill, D. Scott Graham, and Ryan Casey Ewell . Jarvise McCoy is the stage manager . Produced by Avoidance Theater Group for Capital Fringe . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.