The subject of Justice Theater Project‘s season this year is “Economic Justice?” That question mark is important. Economic justice in the 21st century must address the staggering number of people in the United States who are working full-time yet still must eke out a meager existence as the “working poor” because the pay rate keeps these workers below the poverty level. This is the reason behind the growing movement to raise the minimum wage. Addressing the subject of economic justice could mean that those of us who have a forty-plus hour workweek, especially in the jobs that pay these ridiculous wages, might actually earn a livable wage. The tale being told of the working poor in JTP’s current production is told first-hand by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America. Adapted to the stage by Joan Holden, Nickel and Dimed tells the story of how Barbara abandoned her middle class standing to become one of the “working poor” and see just how one managed on $6-8/hour. What she found out is, one can’t.

Directed by Terra Hodge, Nickel and Dimed sports a cast of eleven who show us the exact conditions experienced daily by the working poor. Sorry working conditions and low pay are only the difficulties faced while on the job. Having no money, not being able to find housing you can afford, and working two or three jobs just to stay afloat are only the more obvious problems faced daily by this lower class of American worker. In the play we see how Barbara must scramble to find a place she can afford while trying to live like those folks she is researching. It is difficult to impossible. A shabby place to sleep might run $699/month, which is 100%+ of your salary if you are only making $6.25/hour.

Barbara (Jean Jamison) relates to us directly, narrating what problems she faces while trying to work a self-set goal of one month in a particular low-paying job. At the places she goes to work, like “Kenny’s” Restaurant, the working conditions are downright unsanitary and the working situation is dismal. Those who work in these places must face demanding managers, constantly being short-handed, and having to work non-stop to meet the needs of the clientele while also maintaining the restaurant and a “good working demeanor.” Having to smile and fix people’s — often ridiculous — problems while scrambling to meet the demands of the job can put a strain on anyone’s attitude. Yet Barbara continues to meet people who make a go of it, such as Gail (Lucia Foster) at Kenny’s, who knows her job, the job Barbara must do, and the tricks one must use to get by in such sorry conditions. Barbara is not at all prepared to work under conditions most middle class Americans would refuse to do, but the working poor have no choice; it’s this job or no job at all.

In other places Barbara works, like a maid service or retail sales at “Mall-Mart,” associates are asked — read “told” — to work off the clock so the work gets done but the employee reports no overtime. Being required to work for free is an actual real-life situation in this trade. It is a Mall-Mart practice. And yet Mall-Mart’s upper management, such as Barbara’s assistant manager (Mac McCord), actually enforce these rules as common, even essential working conditions in order to meet sales quotas while keeping down the cost of labor. In other words, Mall-Mart actually defends making employees work for free as good business practice!

Part of the tale of Barbara’s plight is what can be done about it. We as “the people” can and should demand that businesses NOT treat their employees as serfs, being made to work terrible conditions while making only a poverty-level wage. Tales such as Barbara’s are the reason behind the national push for a $15/hour minimum wage. It is ridiculous to make an individual work a full work week and pay them only a pittance, so that situations arise like Joan’s (Emelia Cowans-Taylor), who lives in her van because the wage she receives as a hostess at Kenny’s makes it impossible for her to pay rent. The working poor face challenges every day that a middle-class worker would not tolerate. Barbara tells us about Holly (Kaley Morrison), the shift supervisor at “Magic Maids,” who is pregnant but won’t stop working because she cannot afford not to work. She falls down a flight of stairs and sprains her knee but will not file a worker’s comp claim. Holly fears that if she pushes the envelope too hard, she will be fired. And that plight is even worse than working for below-the-poverty-level wages.

The actors who populate this show worked very hard to make sure we understood the plight of their characters. Jamison as Barbara did a fine job of expressing incredulity at what her character discovers at the top of the show, but was even better at showing how Barbara really understands her own plight before her experiment is over. As Gail, Foster was real country, but she was also real in her portrayal of the stalwart on the job. Mac McCord did double duty as George, the inept, aging busboy at Kenny’s, and he brought us up short with his no-nonsense portrayal of the Mall-Mart manager who knows his job and isn’t afraid to do it.

JTP stages these nasty working conditions on a set that is constantly changing, and might consist of a room in a seedy motel, a dining area in a nasty restaurant, or a working line in a Mall-Mart store. A constantly moving set maked for a constantly moving cast, who maked sure that every new set was properly staged with clockwork precision. Technical support consisted of a light board operator who, in addition to his other duties, maintained an overhead projector that told us exactly what locations each scene represented. Music was supplied by the Durham musical troupe Tha Materials (or Tha Mats for short), who provided a rollicking soundtrack that keeps things moving briskly.

Nickel and Dimed is a Triangle project, drawing from all three points of the map. Director Terra Hodge is the theatre arts teacher at Culbreath Middle School in Chapel Hill; costume designer Brenda Hayes hails from Durham. Artistic Director Deb Royals, who co-founded the Justice Theater Project, has raised a family in Raleigh but got her doctorate from UNC-CH. Many different people wearing many different hats have contributed to putting Nickel and Dimed before the public for JTP. This second, expanded version of the story goes more deeply into the perils that an individual must face outside the job, such as applying for food stamps or a housing subsidy. Those who cannot make it on a minimum wage job have to depend on the same support structures as those who have no work at all; it is imperative that “we the people” work toward making sure that everyone who works for a living can actually make a living, without having to depend on two or three ridiculous-waged jobs just to stay afloat.

Nickel and Dimed is a wake-up call that highlights the economic disparity between the middle class and the poor, and those poor souls who must live below the poverty level, even though they put in 40+ hours a week. Support the show, but more importantly, support the work JTP and other Triangle entities do to try and keep wages high enough to support a family, let alone a single person like Barbara.

The Justice Theater Project has four shows this season that address economic justice, including a spring production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Nickel and Dimed continues through Saturday, October 22. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.