There is power in a union

SRT's 'Slaughter City' dramatizes the labor movement

Some works of drama are meant to entertain, delight and whisk audiences away to another world. Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City," presented by Stanford Repertory Theater (SRT), is not one of those. Instead, it's powerful, dark and -- despite its pivotal forays into the supernatural and surreal -- rooted in real-world issues, distasteful though they may be.

The play is part of SRT's summer 2016 festival, "Theater Takes a Stand," celebrating the American labor movement (other elements include a Monday night film series, a community symposium on theater and labor, and the upcoming play "Waiting for Lefty"). It's a theme and festival lineup that's starkly different from last year's effervescent English offerings from Noel Coward, and kudos to SRT for doing justice to both.

"Slaughter City" takes place in a Kentucky meat-packing plant, based on the real one where, in 1993, the workers' union held a bitter strike against the company, prompted by the unsafe conditions that led to an employee's death from ammonia inhalation.

The audience meets "kill-floor" workers Brandon (Louis McWilliams), Maggot (Nora Tjossem) and Roach (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). They're devoted union members, fighting for seniority privileges, fair wages and other rights, but with little gain. Brandon's a young man with a quick temper and a poetic, Shakespearean way with words. He's skilled with a knife but volatile, someone the bosses want to keep an eye on. He's also consumed with desire for his co-worker, Roach, an African-American woman who's a decade his senior and world-weary, tired of being passed over and mistreated in work and life due to both her race and gender.

Management, on the other side of the equation, is represented by Baquin (yes, pronounced, "bacon"). Portrayed by Thomas Freeland, he's a stereotype of a villainous, out-of-touch white-collar type, eager to force his employees to participate in "morale-boosting" extracurriculars while disregarding their fundamental needs (and ready to exploit them whenever it suits him). He also has a disturbing and seemingly uncontrollable penchant for slipping meat-related words into his conversations, which takes on a greater meaning by play's end. His lackey is Tuck (Dorian Lockett), a black man who's risen through the ranks from lowly floor worker to supervisor and wants to believe he's immune to racism. He finds himself torn between the demands of his boss and his empathy for his underlings/basic moral decency. After all, as Roach reminds him, there but for the grace of God goes he. One of the play's narrative threads is, in some ways, Tuck's fight for his soul.

But there are two other major characters in "Slaughter City," and here's where things get surprisingly surreal. Representing the systemic battle between capital and labor since time immemorial (or at least the Industrial Revolution) are Sausage Man (Austin Caldwell) and Cod (Fiona Maguire), an androgynous worker. When we first meet the characters, Cod is a recently hired scab and the object of hatred from the union employees, but sparks soon fly (literally) between Cod and Maggot. Spouting inflammatory words of support for the union, as well as shuffling through facts from famous labor disputes and tragedies of the past, it seems Cod does not play by regular temporal rules. Sausage Man, decked out in dapper, old-timey wear and a necklace made of sausage links, and sporting an old-fashioned meat grinder, is the devilish spirit of capitalism personified. He is the facilitator of the whole grim system, and Cod, it's revealed, is his "spark." Cod was rescued as a fetus from the womb of a woman (Tess McCarthy) who died in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which 146 textile workers, mostly young women, perished when they could not escape from the locked doors of their sweatshop. In "Slaughter City," Sausage Man forces Cod to travel with him throughout time to ignite more labor conflicts, creating more fodder for his great cosmic meat grinder.

'Slaughter City" is not exactly a musical, but characters do occasionally break into song, with stirring results. Among the performers, Lockett and Mbele-Mbong stand out, especially in a memorable scene in which they join together singing. Recent Stanford grad Caldwell has a gleeful time chewing up the scenery as Sausage Man and imbues the character with sinister charm.

Director Alex Johnson has organized the show well. Rather than creating a set, the characters pantomime their actions on the kill floor as the off-scene actors effectively create the grisly sound effects with simple tools. And their white uniforms, covered in red blood, provide all the costuming they need.

Watching "Slaughter City" isn't a pleasant experience -- a slaughterhouse is a truly disgusting place, for both man and beast. The message can come across heavy-handedly, and the uneven style of the script takes some getting used to (and parents should note there is strong language, violence and nudity). But it's also undeniably moving and compelling. The capitalist system, the play makes clear, is one in which the workers are always treated like meat, whether they're literally employed by a slaughterhouse or not, their blood greasing the wheels of industry. "Slaughter City" may serve to ignite the flames of activism, or at least awareness, in audience members who've turned a blind eye to the injustice surrounding them.

What: Stanford Repertory Theater's "Slaughter City"

Where: Nitery Theater, 514 Lasuen Mall, Stanford

When: Through Aug. 7, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Post-show discussions follow Sunday matinees.

Cost: $15-$25

Info: Go to SRT.

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