Minimum wage, maximum rage

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By Mike Drach

Every time I go to Ryerson’s Business Building Playhouse, I’m subjected to the same thing day in, day out — stale tragic comedies that serve as little more than sleeping aids.

You can imagine my surprise, then, at witnessing a powerful performance recently in the Business Building: Youth & Unions: Working Together?, by Debora De Angelis.

Youth & Unions is a morality play, a one-woman show that makes no effort to step around social issues and philosophical dilemmas. De Angelis, one of the leading figures in the “Angry Young Women” movement, gives a rambling monologue about her experiences working in retail at Suzy Shier, a woman’s clothing store. Her dialogue, peppered with genuine outrage, recounts her unimaginable working conditions and the company’s continual effort to exploit workers. With the voice of a woman scorned, she gives us examples of her less-than-glamorous vocation, like the story of a young sales clerk who was sent home in tears by her boss for wearing “clunky” shoes that did not match her outfit.

The real story, however, is how De Angelis’ character frees her sisters from oppression by successfully unionizing a Suzy Shier outlet. Instantly, her life was improved. Like the works of Harold Pinter, Youth & Unions maintains a fine balance between tension and absurdity. One cannot tell if she is stumbling through the performance (“that’s the camel that broke the hair’s… umm…”) or if it is deliberate, the confusion merely a dramatic side effect of her anger.

Dressed in a minimalist black-and-white suit and “bitch boots,” De Angelis looks like a woman ready to break the chains or corporate tyranny with her bare hands.

But there is no action, no music, no props — just the spitting voice of indignation, like when she denounces the owners Suzy Shier: “They’re making buckets of money — buckets! I mean… buckets!”

However, for all the populist fury De Angelis builds up, the ending is something of a letdown. She tells us that a year after she struggled to improve working conditions, the slippery big shots at Suzy Shier simply closed down the store. Although this might make any other person deeply pessimistic, De Angelis never gives up her beliefs, telling the audience they should follow her path to salvation.

As the performance comes to a close, De Angelis briefly drops her guard and speaks directly to the audience, concluding the monologue with a question: “Do young people need unions?”

It is impossible not to succumb to the primordial fire dancing in her eyes as she asks us to tell her what she needs to hear, perhaps shouted in unison.

But the answer, in fact, is also anticlimactic: “I think it depends where you work,” comes the response from somewhere in the audience. De Angelis simply gives a weak nod.

Despite these shortcomings, this performance affected me greatly. I’ll never look at work the same way again, and I suspect the same of my fellow audience members.

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