BWW Review: Eboni Booth's PARIS, A Tragic Indictment Of Low-Wage Employment At Big Box Retail Stores
Sometimes the most truthful answer to the standard job interview question, "Why do you want to work here?", is "I'm behind on my rent, I have no health care and I'm desperate for money because I don't make enough at my other job."
But, of course, you can't say that, so, if you're like Emmie, the central character of Paris, Eboni Booth's quietly tragic indictment of low-wage employment at big box retail stores, you quote the upbeat training video you just watch and say how you want to be a part of a hardworking team that's focused on customer service.
That video, which opens Knud Adams' effectively naturalistic production, ridiculously boasts of the family atmosphere enjoyed by employees at Berry's, and advises anyone hearing talk of unions to report such foolishness to their supervisor immediately, since unions are unnecessary when companies care about their workers.
Set in 1995, in a fictional town where "city of light" might refer to the harsh fluorescents lighting its leading employer of minimum wage ($5/hr.) workers, Paris foregoes a traditional linear plot in favor of depicting day-to-day events that add up to a damning portrait of how thriving corporations feed the overworked poor with opportunities to advance into positions that can make them slightly less poor ($9/hr.!).
It's all explained to us through young Emmie's (softly empathetic Jules Latimer) orientation into the work environment. On the top tier of designer David Zinn's excellent set, a drab break room, she endures a perfunctory interview from manager Gar (Eddie K. Robinson), who is concerned about the bandage on her badly bruised face, explaining he'll have to keep her in the storage room (the set's lower level), out of the view of customers, until it heals.
Gar and Emmie are two of the few black people in the predominantly white community, and if Gar seems extra demanding on his employees, it's most likely because his effectiveness as a leader is judged by stricter standards. Emmie's presence in town is so unobtrusive that when she tells co-workers that she's originally from Paris, they react with surprise that they've never noticed her.
Those co-workers include retail veteran Wendy (sweet and crusty Ann McDonough) and aspiring rapper Logan (Christopher Dylan White), both of whom cover for Emmie when she accidentally bleeds on the cheap merchandise.
Money, and the need for more of it, dominates workday conversations, which often involve undercalculated paychecks and money docked for every extra bathroom break minute. Emmie serves drinks at a local tavern, Wendy's husband Dev (James Murtaugh) annoys everyone trying to sell a series of get-rich-quick books while Logan pitches tickets for his band's gigs.
The most vocal about the everyday indignities is Maxine (Danielle Skraastad), who lives in a motel room with her four kids.
Even Gar seems to have something happening on the side, and we can sense from his visits from the creepy Carlisle (Bruce McKenzie) that it isn't especially savory. When he appears to be in trouble, Emmie is the only one who expresses concern. Perhaps as a sign of racial solidarity, perhaps because she's a sincerely nice person, or maybe because she's yet to be sufficiently hardened by the dehumanizing system that makes millions for the few off the desperation of the many.