The Flick: Portraying Low Paid Workers With Respect

r6jv77We finally went to see The Flick by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf this month, catching it just before it closed. It’s one of those plays I first encountered in fragments, as I helped J learn lines from a handful of scenes, and was curious enough about to badger him into getting us tickets.

J seemed a bit concerned I might not like it. He reminded me several times it’s over 3 hours long and has a reputation for being a bit tricky. (I suspect he still hasn’t forgiven me for hating Waiting For Godot.) The trickiness, it seems, comes from Baker’s use of silence. The play runs 3 hours 10 minutes but only has about 70 pages of actual dialogue, which means there are a lot of long pauses or moments when the actors are moving about the stage but not saying anything to each other.

Apparently the first time The Flick was performed, the (mostly subscriber) audience was furious, and in every performance including the one I saw, the audience was a lot thinner after the interval.

All this throws up interesting questions about the extent to which we associate “something happening” in a play with “people are talking” as opposed to “people are moving around on stage.” But I found The Flick utterly absorbing, helped no doubt by the very high quality of the production and the wonderful cast.

The play revolves around three employees of a run-down movie theater. Two white employees, Sam and Rose, have been working there for a while. Rose is in her mid-late 20s, and Sam is roughly ten years older. The play opens with Sam showing Avery, a young African American guy, how to clean the auditorium on his first day. Avery has just started working at the movie theater. We eventually learn he is younger than the other too, but also the son of a professor, and currently home on a year-long break from college.

The details of these characters lives are gradually unpeeled; later in the play there are certainly tense interactions between them. But for much of the time, and particularly the for the long first half of the play, the audience just watches them go about their work. Sweeping up popcorn. Cleaning the projector. Mopping the floor. Having the kind of mundane passing-the-time skimming-the-surface conversations most of us have with our colleagues in any job.

The set was a replica of the back of a movie theater: the (play viewing) audience sitting in the location the screen would be, facing the empty stalls recently vacated by the other (movie viewing) audience. Sam, Avery, and Rose moved among the stalls, cleaning for the most part, occasionally sitting to chat.

The effect was almost documentary-like. Specifically, I kept thinking of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. It had that same intense focus on the detail of daily life, where without much being said you become aware instead of the precision of the observation.

A narrative uncurls, eventually. But it does so in the same way that our day-to-day lives acquire a narrative: through the repetition of mundane minuet acts that pile up, and eventually, through their accumulation, become significant.

And honestly, isn’t this much of what life is like? Particularly our working lives, which is what The Flick and many of Wiseman’s most memorable documentaries show.

What really struck me about The Flick’s, however, was its commentary on working class jobs, and the complexities of both race and age (and perhaps to a lesser extent gender) in our understanding of class.

The conflicts, when they do arise, are between the two younger employees and Sam. While Rose and Avery can get away with the idea that their cleaning up popcorn as a temporary post-college “shitty job”, Sam is old enough that this just is his job.

And then later, the conflict switches to be Sam and Rose against Avery. At first this is fairly obviously about Avery being black. But later it becomes a more subtle and unexpected matter of class, as we realize that Avery’s college-education and middle-class family, create just as great a distance as his race.

In these tensions, there is a subtlety to how Baker and the cast/crew of this production in particular depict working class service jobs, something that also reminded me of the Samuel D. Hunter play Rest. There is a respectfulness, that is often lacking in plays about crappy jobs.

I’m thinking in particular of another play we saw in Chicago recently: Mai Dang Lao by David Jacobi.  Despite having a great cast, great director, and being a great production, it just felt… off somehow. It’s been rankling in the back of my mind ever since I saw it, and not in the way I suspect the author intended. Parts of the play were certainly intended to be shocking (see below), but it wasn’t this that made me angry.

Anyway having now seen The Flick, I think I’m closer to understanding what annoyed me so much about Mai Dang Lao.

Mai Dang Lao (which btw, is what McDonald is called in China) is set in a fast food drive-through somewhere in the US. It follows five employees through an evening shift – similar to The Flick, we barely see the customers and instead watch the interactions between these colleagues.

It’s immediately apparent, however, that we are only meant to sympathize or identify with two of them: two of the younger employees who (in their contrasting ways) both see their job as contemptable. The hero is the young woman who plans to escape and do something better with her life. The ‘bad guys’ are the managers or wannabe managers who apparently don’t: two older employees who are characterized as obsessive rule-followers, and a younger woman sycophantically doing whatever she is told to get a promotion.

Bad things happen (hint) that make it clear that the kind of people who take their crappy jobs seriously—particularly people who are still in those crappy jobs in their 30s—are obviously pathetic creeps, just one nudge away from becoming willing torturers.

Notwithstanding the fact that the shock-drama of this play is based on a true story—the take home message about people in crappy jobs being losers is the cheapest of cheap shots.

So, ok: I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that maybe people working in the arts (like playwrights, for instance…) might perhaps be rather familiar with the service industry…?

But it’s one thing to see your waitressing gig or fast food gig or store clerk gig as a means to pay the rent, while waiting for your art to take off enough that you can do it full time. Doing so probably gives you the luxury of being able to think yourself above serving fries.

It can lead to some pretty cheap and insulting depictions of people who do it full time, however. People who hold service jobs or working class jobs, not because they need something easy and disposable until their real passion takes off. But because it’s just their job. Who can’t, or haven’t, framed this as something temporary.

This antagonism between those who are young and middle-class, who have alternatives and see service-jobs as a stop-gap, and people who are older and working-class, for whom any job is a relief if it means being able to pay rent and eat—this is precisely the tension explored so subtly and respectfully in The Flick.

I keep thinking of Derrell Odom, the Marine Vet who now works in KFC who testified as part of the service workers fight for $15 hour wage and union rights. A man who works hard and loves his job, but can’t support his family on the minimum wage he is paid. The ease with which we demean people who work in fast food, is, I would argue, directly related to the struggle such workers have being taken seriously, having their labor valued enough to be compensated at living wages.

What actually makes a job shitty? Is there something inherent to cleaning or caring or cooking that makes it demeaning, or is it rather the way we assume those that would willingly do such jobs should be treated with contempt?

I mean, Amazon appears to treat all its workers with contempt, both those in the factory and those in the office. But there doesn’t appear to be as much appetite for setting a play about authoritarianism and the cult of work in a middle-class professional setting. What if Mai Dang Lao had been set in in a university or bank, and we were mocking professors or accountants for being too invested in their work. Or in a children’s hospital, and we were critiquing doctors and nurses for caring too much and being too hierarchical.

Depicting service jobs as inherently more meaningless and demeaning than professional jobs—and by extension the people who do them and take pride in their work as jokes—has implications in the real world. But perhaps we can just see these plays as part of a wider and more depressing trend, towards fewer sympathetic and respectful depictions of working class lives in our cultural landscape.


The Flick, by Annie Baker at Steppenwolf

  • 2 male characters, 1 female character. (There were two other very minor male characters played by a fourth actor.) The female character was substantive rather than superficial.
  • 1 black character, 2 white. Played by actors whose ethnicity matched the characters.
  • female, white playwright.
  • I forgot to note the crew.


Mai Dang Lao, by David Jacobi at Sideshow

  • 3 male, 3 female characters. The female characters were substantive.
  • 1 black character, 4 white. 1 presumably white (the character isn’t seen).
  • The playwright is male and white.
  • I forgot to note the crew, but the director and dramaturg/associate director are both women.

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