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Retail, resistance, and rebirth in Wally World and Kickback

If you’re not working retail this Christmas Eve, spare a thought for those who are—possibly by carving out time to listen to Isaac Gómez‘s Wally World, a two-act audio play now available through Steppenwolf’s “Steppenwolf Now” digital season. And if you need a last-minute dose of resistance and joy to help you get over the last days of 2020, About Face Theatre’s digital celebration of Black queer lives, Kickback, has heart and fire to spare.

Gómez’s play is set in a store obviously modeled after Walmart, but with a name reminiscent of the amusement park in National Lampoon’s Vacation. The incidents that befall the beleaguered employees on Christmas Eve in Wally World put the misadventures of the Griswold clan to shame. From an assistant manager quitting abruptly the day before, to interpersonal employee clashes up to and including sexual harassment, to customers who take an, um, improvisational approach to attending to their bodily needs, Gómez throws a lot into the frenetic mix. It’s Superstore on steroids.

It’s also a world with which Gómez is deeply familiar. His mother manages a Walmart in El Paso (the same city in which Wally World is set), though not the one where a terrorist attack by a white supremacist claimed 23 lives in 2019. (That shooting is referenced, though it’s not a major part of the plot.) And the store manager here, Andy (Sandra Marquez), is inspired by Gómez’s mother, Andrea. (The playwright acknowledged as much in an online interview at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where Wally World had a workshop production in early 2019.)

The other nine characters are also based in part on people Gómez knows through his mother’s job, and that familiarity means that there is a bone-deep verisimilitude to the interactions between these characters. I worked retail (albeit at a more-sedate-by-comparison bookstore) for several holiday seasons in my younger days. Wally World captures the frustrations that erupt with coworkers who don’t seem to be doing as much as you are, as well as the retail battlefield camaraderie that develops as you try to get the customers hustled out the door at the end of the night. (I remember once bellowing in exasperation at customers who simply would not follow the form-one-line-only rule, “Pretend you’re at the BANK, people!”)

“It’s a warzone out there,” one employee says. “Actually, it’s not. It’s a multinational capitalist mastodon,” a colleague retorts. 

It does take a while, even over two and a half hours, to fully keep straight how these relationships are situated when all we have to rely upon are the characters’ voices. (Steppenwolf provides a character guide, and it’s a good idea to peruse it before tuning in.) Of necessity, some characters’ stories feel as if they get short shrift compared to others, at least in the listening, where we lose the nuances of glance and gesture that can flesh out moments on stage. This was originally devised as a play for live performance, and I think, despite the excellent direction from Gómez and Lili-Anne Brown and the stellar Steppenwolf cast, it would still resonate better in that format.

But when the story focuses on Marquez’s marvelous Andy, it soars. She’s terse, demanding, exacting—as anyone must be to survive in the high-pressure world of high-volume retail. (It’s also not difficult to see how much more scrutiny an immigrant woman like Andy faces in that world.) Yet she’s also vulnerable; her mother-in-law is in hospice and her work schedule leads her husband to tell her, “You’re like the roommate who’s never home.” (“That’s sad,” one of her employees whispers when Andy relays this to them.)

In the Denver interview, Gómez described his play as a “Walmart Chekhov,” and that’s pretty accurate, inasmuch as it involves characters who are largely neither heroic nor villainous, and whose lives are dribbling away in quiet moments of desperation amid bursts of defiance and hope. In a year when retail workers have been keeping our asses alive (while dealing with insanity above and beyond the usual customer entitlement), Gómez’s play is an appropriate way to celebrate them. 

At times, it reminded me of Annie Baker’s The Flick (also produced locally at Steppenwolf in 2016), which followed a trio of movie-theater employees who reveal themselves to each other through mundane tasks. Here, though, Gómez employs more rat-a-tat dialogue to convey the frenetic nature of the superstore. In addition to Marquez, there is excellent work from Karen Rodriguez as Janie, whose monologues/diatribes on the “god mike” become loopier and more intense as the night continues; from Audrey Francis as Amy, the night manager who is a tough-love touchstone for Andy; and from Jacqueline Williams as Estelle, an assistant manager who knows she deserves a promotion. But everyone in this cast delivers the goods.

It’s still relatively rare for plays about everyday working people—or at least, ones that don’t treat them solely as one-dimensional victims of nefarious market forces—to be produced in American theaters. (Weird, since workplace comedies do so well on television.) I really hope that Wally World gets a full production with Steppenwolf once it’s safe to do so. Meantime, if you’ve got the time to spare over the holiday, I suspect you’ll enjoy getting to know these characters. 

click to enlarge Litany Pt. IV: Ebony by Jenn Freeman/Po'Chop (part of About Face Theatre's Kickback festival) - COURTESY ABOUT FACE THEATRE

  • Litany Pt. IV: Ebony by Jenn Freeman/Po’Chop (part of About Face Theatre’s Kickback festival)
  • Courtesy About Face Theatre


About Face Theatre closes out the year with a collection of vignettes conceived and directed by associate artistic director Mikael Burke, focused on Black queer experience and inspired by the Rebuild Foundation’s collections at Stony Island Bank, particularly the archives from Johnson Publishing.

You can pick and choose your way through the nine video segments, which include music, movement, poetry, animation, and a couple of mini-playlets devised as Zoom sessions. One of the latter, Frankie & Labi Saved Us, is written and performed by Robert Cornelius and Paul Oakley Stovall and takes the form of an online therapy session between Cornelius’s patient and Stovall’s therapist. The two bond over their love of music: Cornelius’s character was an early devotee of house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles, and Stovall’s shrink was introduced to British Black openly gay musician Labi Siffre by his father—which didn’t keep the old man from kicking his son out once he learned he was queer.

It’s a touching historical timeline rendered through keen personal memories of what it meant to be young, queer, and Black in Chicago in the days right before AIDS changed everything. Cornelius’s patient unpeels just how much the current pandemic and concurrent isolation have triggered the worst memories and feelings associated with seeing friends and lovers die in the 80s and 90s. It’s also a celebration of the power of opening up, either to a therapist or a friend, about what those memories and fears can do to one’s sense of self-worth.

As befits a show inspired by Black historic archives, there are also segments that delve into the lesser-known lives of Black queer artists. In OM Mission by ShaZah (Shanta Nurullah and Zahra Baker), we get a lesson about Black lesbian musicians of the 1920s that goes beyond Ma Rainey, such as cross-dressing Gladys Bentley, who moved from Harlem to southern California—and who gave up men’s attire (and married a man) during the McCarthy era. (She claimed that taking female hormones “cured” her of lesbianism.) 

In Litany Pt. IV: Ebony, Jenn Freeman (aka Po’Chop) takes a quick trip through the pages of Ebony magazine, accompanied by DJ Dapper‘s soundscape and a recitation of a fragment of Audre Lorde‘s poem “A Litany for Survival.” A miniature Freeman dances across vintage ads for Benson & Hedges cigarettes and stories with headlines such as “How Black Is Black?” It’s a cunning homage to Black empowerment, then and now.

The last piece I saw of the nine, john 11:35 [fo(r) all de lazurus(is)], created by avery r. young, combines movement, music, and poetry in retelling the biblical story of Lazarus through a Black queer lens. A dancer wrestles with a red cloth that at times seems like a shroud and at others a birth membrane. The names of murdered Black trans people and Black victims of police violence bracket the sequence, scrolling by as sorrowful reminders of lives lost to hatred and bigotry. And yet, like Lazarus, there is a potent sense of rebirth amid the loss.

I don’t think it particularly matters in which order you decide to watch the pieces that make up Kickback. But don’t skip any of them. The history, hope, and deeply humane stories on display here deserve your full attention.  v

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