White men win again — that seems to be the moral of Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker, written by Jeff Reiser and Chinwe Nwosu and directed by Jordyn Nicole.
When Bartleby, an incompetent janitor armed with white male instincts, joins an all-female, majority POC marketing team, he tries to shake things up. On a team where the worst office politics used to revolve around the only white woman (Julia, played by Anna Huntley) and her exclusively apologetic or honorific way of speaking with her women-of-color colleagues, Bartleby’s presence frustrates and exasperates his new peers.
Nicole (Lisa Cortley-Hill), the team leader, and Tamara (Alyse Hamilton) remind each other that any family in a commercial should have a white dad and a black mom (the reverse would be too controversial, mind you), and Bartleby encourages them to stop thinking about race and just consider a “traditional” family. Nicole second guesses herself, ultimately trusts him, and the office mood sours.
The campaigns the marketing team focuses on hit many of the biggest cultural topics from the last few years — Confederate monuments, beauty standards, and more. Reiser and Nwosu certainly pack a lot into this 60-minute play and manage to write in punch lines revolving around predatory office-place sexual harassment, casual racism, and offensive remarks. It’s a dicey tightrope to walk across, with a few stumbles along the way.
For example, Casey Ryan Ewell, who plays the boss, Steve, hits the creepy boss vibe so accurately that it’s almost hard to watch, especially if you’ve seen that unfold in real life, or experienced it yourself.
The confused, panic-stricken face of Kim the intern in response to Steve’s antics, perfectly timed though it was (her entire performance was a master class in expressive but subtle facial expressions), is a tough punch line to land. Is it her discomfort we’re supposed to laugh at? Or the ridiculous nature of his predatory actions, which anybody might recognize from their real-life workday?
In fact, throughout the play, the women’s reactions to the casual sexism and racism of their male colleague and boss drive the humor. At one point, Nicole’s quizzical and embarrassed reaction to her boss’s speech about his own genitalia provide the laughs, and at another, it’s Tamara’s reaction to Julia’s overly-apologetic and seemingly fake allyship.
Of course, those reactions themselves were excellent — scaled well and appropriately horrified. A testament, no doubt, to Jordyn Nicole’s direction, as were the indignant, ignorant, and slimy performances of Bartleby (D. Scott Graham) and Steve. But the line between comedic relief and serious, offensive encounters needs to be better clarified.
To love Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker, you’ll have to be able to engage in a clear and direct conversation about racism, sexism, and harassment in the workplace – you’ll also have to be able to laugh about it.
Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.
Bartleby, the Magical White Coworker plays through July 28, 2018, at Christ United Methodist Church – 900 4th St SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them at the door or online.