Published in KPBS On Air Magazine September 2005
Can an acclaimed, high-profile journalist subsist on minimum wage? Social critic Barbara Ehrenreich was determined to find out. She spent a year moving among three states (Florida, Maine and Minnesota), taking low-wage jobs such as waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, Wal-Mart salesperson and nursing home aide. The result was her knockout, life-changing, consciousness-raising, best-selling 2001 book, “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”
In 2002, Joan Holden, longtime comical/political writer for the Tony Award-winning San Francisco Mime Troupe, adapted the non-fiction blockbuster into a play, Nickel and Dimed, with Ehrenreich as the frazzled central character. After making the regional theater rounds, with a projected opening this year in New York, the play is having its local premiere at SDSU, as part of a series of campus-wide events.
Ehrenreich’s book was chosen for the University’s Summer Reading Program, recommended for all incoming freshmen and transfer students. Ehrenreich will appear on campus (Nov. 3) to present a free lecture. And on September 30, the day her play opens at SDSU, playwright Joan Holden will give a free talk.
The director of the local premiere is Peter Cirino, assistant professor in the School of Theatre, Television and Film. The trilingual, multicultural specialist is the son of an Italian father (who died in the Vietnam War) and a Mexican mother.
“The moment I read [Ehrenreich’s ] book, I said, ‘I have to do something with this; this is my Mom’s life,’” says Cirino. “My mom was a piece-worker in the garment district of Dallas, making about a half-penny per dress. She also worked as a housekeeper and nanny, and a hotel cleaning person. Her life mirrored what Barbara had done. I couldn’t read the book without picturing her. When I heard there was a play, I knew I had to direct it.”
Cirino made contact with Holden and began pitching the play to his Department several years ago. This year, the timing was perfect.
“I really think it’s an important piece of work,” he says. “It’s informative but not preachy. And it has lots of comic moments. What it does is promote empathy. People think the minimum wage is okay; these people have jobs and they can live on what they earn. But the fact is, as Barbara Ehrenreich found out, you just can’t survive.”
During her ‘experiment’ earning $7 an hour, Ehrenreich couldn’t make ends meet. She failed to provide for herself the necessities of life, let alone the luxury of health coverage. She discovered exactly how labor-intensive and demeaning those low-paying, unskilled jobs could be. Ultimately, she was forced to work two jobs, seven days a week, and still, she almost wound up in a shelter.
Looking back on the experience, Ehrenreich noted that the hardest thing for her to accept was the “invisibility of the poor.” “We see them every day in restaurants, hotels, discount stores and fast-food chains,” she wrote, “but we don’t recognize them as ‘poor’ because, after all, they have jobs. The working poor,” she said, “are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high… My life is subsidized by the people whose labor I live upon.”
As prize-winning author Studs Terkel put it, “’Nickel and Dimed’ is a stiff punch in the nose to those righteous apostles of ‘welfare reform,’” with its promise that any job equals a better life.
“My hope,” says director Cirino, “is that the play will ‘guilt’ people into doing something about the ‘caste system’ that’s developing in American. That they’ll be motivated to stand up for human rights and get involved.”
Post-performance talk-backs will be offered, scenes will be presented in SDSU classrooms and faculty are encouraged to include “Nickel and Dimed” in their syllabi. But despite all these intellectual pursuits, the hope is that the response to the book and play will be visceral.
“In this society,” says Cirino, “it’s so easy to become detached. When we don’t directly see and feel the ills of society, we have no empathy for them. This play helps us realize that these people are killing themselves so we can have an easier life.
“I think live theater, unlike modern media, can help audiences feel empathy and compassion. There’s a human being up there going through this situation, and it’s clear that these events came from real stories and real people. When a live actor is up there, it creates energy between the topic and the audience.”
Among its other efforts, the University is offering steeply discounted tickets for students, groups and low-income workers.
“It builds such self-esteem to see yourself up there onstage,” says Cirino. And as for his now-retired mother? “She’ll definitely see herself in it. She’s probably cry.”
[Nickel and Dimed runs September 30-October 9 in the Don Powell Theatre on the campus of SDSU. 619-594-6884, theatre.sdsu.edu]
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.