Review: Stage Left Asks Hard Questions About Work and Pay in World Premiere of In the Back on the Floor

Back in the day, solidarity and unions meant protection and fair wages. A person could own their home, travel, have a new car, and retire comfortably with a pension. I hear a refrain of the All in the Family theme. Chicago-born playwright Ken Green’s In the Back on the Floor is a one-two punch about corporate greed and the tactics that have been used for years to keep working people as low on the totem pole as possible. The play is smoothly directed by Rachel Van. She keeps the beats of the dialogue tight and the actions of the performers graceful in a physical play.

This play takes place in a big box store called Home Base. Pick a store—any store where you can buy everything from pre-cut lumber to a bag of crew socks. Now think about the people that unload the trucks and stock the shelves. In the Back on the Floor centers on five workers and a "drank-the-jungle-punch" assistant manager. They are the people in the warehouse who are not considered polished enough to work the front of the store.

Carlos (Jorge Aguilar) talks a lot of smack to his coworkers but there is a grudging camaraderie under the tough exterior. Wanda (Kairis Rivera) is the only woman on the crew and she gives as good as she gets. Carlos’ language is foul and he makes sexist remarks to Wanda who makes it clear that she could kick his butt.

Caleb Lee Jenkins, Kairis Rivera, Peter Leondedis, and Jelani Julyus. Photo by Bobbi Masters.

Wally (Peter Leondedis) is the elder statesman of the crew who remembers the good old days and is working to make ends meet. Wally has a sick wife whose illness is not fully covered by insurance. Leondedis gives a beautifully poignant performance. His character knows the corporate world and has had an office career which didn’t amount to enough of a pension. Wally has a bond with Larry (Jelani Julyus) over music and life. Julyus does a stellar job of being the smartest guy in the room who happens to be Black. The comic timing of Larry explaining metaphors or trying to correct malapropisms projects a silent dialog in his head: “Why do I even try to explain?”

Jose (Juan Conde Belmares) is the Latino kid who believes in the Home Base corporate line he has been fed. It is also the lie of the American Dream that if you work hard and show initiative, you can climb the ladder no matter your racial or ethnic origins. Belmares nearly brought me to tears with the dialogue about going further than his father and not smelling like grease. He wants to wear a shirt and tie. Foley (Caleb Lee Jenkins) is the anti-Jose, a White kid who knows how to play the game and bullshit his way to team leader. Jenkins does a great job as the slacker who will someday wear khakis, a polo shirt, and carry a walkie-talkie.

Katherine Schwartz plays assistant manager Donna of the aforementioned khakis, polo, and walkie-talkie plus clipboard. Schwartz gives a star turn with a full emotional arc as an employee who is all about quotas and following the rules. The best comic lines come from Ashley-Marie Chavez and Loredon Krug as Julie and Allen, your friendly corporate training video stars. They shovel the compost hard and heavy complete with cheesy smiles and corny metaphors. Krug also plays the store manager Allen who is also a stickler to the corporate line. Chavez made my blood boil in a dual role as the snotty customer who is condescending to everyone. It was hilarious, but I have been on the receiving end of condescension and always wanted to ream that kind of customer.

Loredon Krug and Ashley Marie Chavez. Photo by Bobbi Masters.

Green has a gifted ear for the cadences of speech from the corporate videos to the rough street talk. In the Back on the Floor tells a familiar tale of the stores that ground the middle class down and made a few people obscenely rich. The play gives voice to the people who have to work more than one job and who are one paycheck away from not affording rent, medication, or healthy nutrition. It’s a perversion of the Reagan era of union-busting and trickle-down economics. Work like a mule and ignore your health so that you can stay in a shitty job. Your health skids because of exhaustion and junk food is more affordable than “eating clean.” Minimum wage does not buy green smoothies or the luxury of elective fasting.

The set design by Jake Sorgen is on point and complemented by Eric Cope’s moody lighting. The stage is a Kafkaesque maze of boxes and a dark break room. In the Back on the Floor has a nightmarish feeling: you have to come to work and see the same thing every day without change. Kudos to props designer Rocky Kolecke for finding or making that ugly avocado green buffet coffee urn. Wow. I could almost smell the aroma of burnt coffee endlessly reheated.

In the Back on the Floor will make you laugh, it will piss you off, and it might make you cry from flashbacks of similar experiences in retail. Hopefully, it will make you shop local, support community businesses, and definitely support Chicago theater. No one from the corporate world will starve.

In the Back on the Floor by Stage Left Theatre runs 100 minutes with no intermission. Performances are through May 28 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue in the River West/West Town neighborhood. Tickets are $30-$40 and can be purchased at www.stagelefttheatre.com

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.