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Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, a new play by Joan Holden adapted from the controversial nonfiction memoir by Barbara Ehrenreich about working in menial jobs for miniscule wages, asks audiences, Can you get by on less than $8 an hour? The show's North Carolina theatrical premiere, presented by The Justice Theater Project under the direction of Deb Royals-Mizerk, will revive the argument that raged over the Talk Radio airwaves in the Triangle last year when the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill selected Ehrenreich's book for all new undergraduate students (i.e., first-year students and transfers) to read during the Carolina Summer Reading Program.
Originally commissioned in 2002 by the Intiman Theatre in the Pacific Northwest, Nickel and Dimed has since been produced by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles; Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island; the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota; and the Uppsala Staateater in Sweden.
Deb Royals-Mizerk and Megan Nerz of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Raleigh, NC, co-founded The Justice Theater Project to put their Catholic social teaching into practice and to present plays such as A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney's provocative stage adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' gut-wrenching novel about an innocent African-American man facing execution — shows that deal with social injustices and inspire audiences to rise up and do something about them.
Director Deb Royals-Mizerk recalls, "Jeanne Tedrow, a good friend and the executive director for Passage Home Inc, let me read her copy of Nickel and Dimed in March of 2004. The Justice Theater Project at that time was in production for A Lesson Before Dying, and we had begun discussion as to our next project.
"Megan Nerz, the executive director of The Justice Theater Project, learned that an adaptation of Nickel and Dimed had already been completed by playwright Joan Holden," says Royals-Mizerk. "She contacted Joan's publisher and Joan. At that time, they were in negotiation with Dramatists Play Service, Inc., but were excited to hear that The Justice Theater Project was interested in doing the play. Megan negotiated a preliminary copy of the play from Joan and her publishers, and we then began to have informal read-throughs of the script to get a feel for the play. The final copy of Nickel and Dimed was received from Dramatists Play Service this past August."
Nickel and Dimed struck a really responsive chord with Deb Royals-Mizerk. She says what she likes most about the script is, "The play's honesty. The voices [Barbara Ehrenreich] shares with us here are not unique. These voices are pervasive throughout our communities. There are things to be done about hunger, housing, and poverty-paying jobs. Now more than ever, the challenge is to hear, recognize, and seek socially just change. How could I not want to direct a show that encourages us to action beyond the theater's doors?"
Royals-Mizerk adds, "Millions of Americans work for poverty-level wages, work two jobs, and support themselves and their families on less than $8 per hour. Contrary to popular belief, laziness has nothing to do with their inability to improve the circumstances of their lives."
She says, "Nickel and Dimed is the story of the working poor who just barely scrape by cleaning houses, waiting tables, and re-stocking shelves across America. The play chronicles the real-life journey of Barbara Ehrenreich (played by Betsy Henderson), who spends several months working undercover in different low-wage jobs and trying to make ends meet on what she earns. Is it possible to pay rent, get gas, afford child care, or even buy food and clothes on less than $8 per hour?"
Besides Betsy Henderson, the show's cast includes Yolanda Batts, Sean A. Brosnahan, Rachel Green, John Honeycutt, Jackie Marriot, Rebecca Nerz, Pat Phillips, and Kristy Throndson.
Royals-Mizerk says the show's production team includes assistant director Torrey Lawrence; musical director Francis Dyer; technical director and scenic, lighting, and makeup designer Shannon Clark; costume designer by Jamie Cuthrell; sound designer Al Wodarski; and props master Jim Zervas.
She says, "Our major challenge was to tell Barbara's story with an adaptation that has all of your actors aside from the central character — Barbara — undertaking multiple roles in a way that does not confuse the viewer as to where they are in the story.... [It is] a wonderful exercise for the actor [and] an incredible challenge to the production team to keep the story clear and uninterrupted."
She says the show's set consists of "geometric shapes like circles, rectangles, and squares incorporated together work to create dimension and depth." Royals-Mizerk adds, "A system of round platforms provides us flow through the organic cyclical nature of the story — these jobs are crappy jobs every day and reflect the shape of nickels and dimes — round and gray. The rectangles and squares reflect a trip down any Main Street in America, where the signs of our world — like the hotels, restaurants and services that we have become accustomed to — fly by us as we travel through life forgetting what the faces of the people working these jobs even look like.
"Society expects things to be done for us so much we have forgotten to appreciate that they are being done for us by real people you find everywhere in present day America," claims Royals-Mizerk.
She adds, "The lighting becomes an integral player, orchestrating the visceral dance-like quality of the written word, literally bringing the script's dance to life. Six systems of light tailored for the piece underscore its realness, and move with the live rhythm of the story, creating a dynamic quality that enhances the rich organic structure of the play.
"The idea behind the costumes," Royals-Mizerk adds, "is to create a unifying line between the characters that gives them all an equality that is then juxtaposed with specific pieces that are added to the base costume to provide visual clarity as to who they are and where they are in the story."
Also, says Deb Royals-Mizerk, "As suggested by the playwright Joan Holden, we have incorporated a live musician who works in tandem with the actors in way that adds subtext, sustains rhythm, and creates a pulse. The score works not only to enhance the text, but in some cases to speak as well."
Note: After the show on Nov. 13, 19, and 20, there will be a special talk-back session during which the cast and production team will discuss the issues raised in the play with the audience. On Nov. 19 and 20, the post-play discussion will include playwright Joan Holden.
The Justice Theater Project presents Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America Saturday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Nov. 14, at 2 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 19, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 20, at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Cary Academy Fine Arts Center, 1500 N. Harrison Ave., Cary, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students, seniors, and military personnel). 919/845-7386 or http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/performances.php?show_id=1 [inactrive 4/05]. The Justice Theater Project: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/ [inactive 4/05]. Carolina Summer Reading Program: http://www.unc.edu/srp/srp2003/questions.html.