Pass through the swinging vinyl flap doors and you find yourself not inside Lookingglass Theatre, but immersed instead in the ongoing performance of Alexander Zeldin’s social activism play, Beyond Caring.
The audience gathers under the noxious glare of fluorescent tubes, facing towering grimy walls in a windowless, industrial building workroom. The awareness grows that these harsh lights will not go down for us at curtain time. Instead we share the glare with four disheartened workers who drift in during the opening minutes of the play.
These people are contract workers, a growing cohort of the American workforce that suffers the peculiar misfortune of not even working for the business they are working at. Actor David Schwimmer, and member of the Lookkingglass Theatre, has brought this story for its U.S. premiere in association with Dark Harbor Stories – a company he leads with Tom Hodges that aims at social enlightenment.
In Beyond Caring, we watch as workers arrive to a dreary workplace. First comes Phil (Edwin Lee Gibon), already established in his contract gig, heading directly into the bathroom – we learn that is his hiding place. Then come new applicants: highly capable, with chip-on-her-shoulder Tracy (J Nicole Brooks), deceptively self-effacing Sonia (Wendy Mateo), and soon after, manager Ian, a dissolute young man who supervises these contract workers, but reports directly to the factory management (embodied in an unseen character, Phil). Later comes one more applicant, Ebony-Grace (Caren Blackmore), who is always needy, and not too productive.
There is much to be enlightened about here for our times. We hear frequently of the difficulties suffered among independent contractors to the “sharing economy,” orchestrated by firms like Uber. Likewise for the challenges of randomly set schedules at chain restaurants, with “clopening” where workers close a Starbucks or McDonald’s late one night, and open early the very next day.
Zeldin’s work gets us to examine the predicament of contract workers who have a jobsite manager, but no worker rights, or avenues of appeal, at their workplace. In small doses, contract work for third party companies can benefit workers who need temporary work – Manpower is a familiar provider here. But the original practice is such workers are to be used in peaks periods. Companies have discovered they can outsource much of their labor needs, and increase or tamp down the headcount as needed.
The workers in Beyond Caring find themselves in competition for a near full-time position. Their performance is critiqued by the unseen Phil, whose reprimands are delivered by Ian. To get a day off, a schedule change, or an accommodation for a short-term ache, is impossible. "Talk to your employer," Ian says when one of them complains.
Beyond Caring highlights the loss in generally accepted standards of worker rights, things we have come to take for granted since the rise in power of unions and the establishment of work rules overseen by the Department of Labor. But the power of unions has eroded with the decline in manufacturing jobs, and the rise of right to work legislation around the country.
Beyond Caring runs through May 7, 2017 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, located inside Chicago's historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. This thought-provoking work comes recommended.