It’s one of my favorite lines from the new play “The Garbologists” running now through December 5 at the Suzanne Roberts Theater. This sanitation saying refers to avoiding danger by knowing from experience what’s in what garbage bag just by looking at it. If there are a bunch of black contractor bags near some wooden furniture and bedding, it’s usually a sign of bed bugs. If bags are duct taped, lift with your legs because it’s guaranteed that the bag is filled with something heavy.
It’s something only a sanitation worker would know, and what instantly gives this play credibility.
Playwright Lindsay Joelle gets this line right plus so much more in her story about two New York sanitation workers—one a nine-year vet, the other having only one hour under her belt. They come from two completely different backgrounds to find a common bond between each other through the job.
As a former sanitation worker for the Philadelphia Streets Department, this play hit home on so many levels. The story is centered around Marlowe, a Black female in her late 30’s who learns the job from Danny, a white male in his late 40’s who has his own way of doing things. Throughout the play I found myself having flash-backs to days on the job as I listened to Danny give Marlowe the tips and tricks of how to stay safe at work.
Through my work as Ya Fav Trashman I have built my platform on prioritizing the importance of sanitation workers and clean streets, but more importantly I want to ignite a movement that makes everyone look at sanitation workers, not just as public employees that handle our trash, but as people who have to deal with life just like everyone else. Sanitation workers get sick, deal with death, have kids to worry about, and run their households. The play succeeds in shining a light on the human side of one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. We often forget that human beings are the ones picking up the trash, not “garbage fairies” as Danny puts it.
The Garbologists takes us on a ride of sadness, joy, angry, disbelief, and understanding as we witness two people who barely know each other create a family type environment at work, based on their past and what they are currently going through.Through this deeper look at themselves by what they experience on their route, the two are able to support one another all while learning new things about themselves.
This existential connection lends itself to the empathy that Joelle is trying to invoke, but I’d be remiss not to mention the lighter parts of the play, like how audience members will also learn a lot of New York sanitation slang, such as mongo (taking treasures home from the trash) and “getting splished” (getting shot with liquids exploding from bags when compacted).
Audience members will also learn how sanitation workers are always finding creative ways of how to do the job smarter not harder.And this play wouldn’t be complete without a meditation on what sanitation workers think about a bad parking job.
Although Joelle certainly did her homework for the play, I was honored that the Philadelphia Theater Company asked me to talk to the cast before the play hit the stage to answer questions about the industry and provide more insight into the characters’ inner lives. I was honored to see some of my notes made the cut.
It was also empowering for my work to know that the Philadelphia Theater Company thought it was long overdue for a play about the essential workers who keep our city moving. My hope is that the show opens your mind to a world you rarely think about but can’t live without. If you catch one of the few remaining shows, tell them Ya Fav sent you!
You can get tickets to the show at philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/the-garbologists. The show runs through Dec. 5.