What must it be like to spend most of your waking life up to your knees in blood and be paid hell’s wages for it?
That’s what Naomi Wallace asked herself as she drove past a meat-packing plant in Kentucky every day. The workers would be “covered in blood from the work they were doing, dangerous work,” she recalled.
In the footsteps of Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” came “Slaughter City,” Wallace’s grisly account of the horrific conditions in America’s meat-processing plants.A fire at Imperial Foods in North Carolina sent giant flames up the conveyor belt, killing workers in a facility with only one unlocked door. At another plant, a worker had so much fecal contamination in his boots his toenails had to be amputated. Another died from inhaling ammonia fumes that literally burned his lungs to death. The list is virtually endless.
“Slaughter City” is an amalgamation of these stories. It doesn’t represent one specific plant or worker, but rather the entire shady industry. Wallace blends metaphor and symbolism with harsh reality to expose the horrible conditions, and managed to give us a poetic, yet grim tale of the underbelly of American capitalism.
Part of the Margo Jones Series, “Slaughter City” was directed by David Denison (M.F.A. ’07). His use of contemporary heavy metal music perfectly complimented the subject matter. At first, it seemed out of place, but it was soon apparent how necessary it actually was. The setting was, of course, a meat-packing plant: very austere and filthy, with metal carcasses dangling from the ceiling. Metallica, White Zombie and Danzig couldn’t have fit better.
Brandon, a young man being slowly driven crazy by the job, was masterfully played by A. Herbert (B.F.A. ’07). Torture dripped out every pore, and when he danced to “Mother” by Danzig as an outlet for his frustration, it was hard not to give him a hug or somehow comfort him. His death affected the entire audience as if it were real.
Roach, played by G. LeBleu (B.F.A. ’07) and Maggot, played by C. DuBord (B.F.A. ’06) are two female workers at the plant. Their plight might almost be worse than that of the men. They suffer through the same back-breaking work under the same inhuman conditions, but also must fend off the sexual advances of managers and fellow employees.
The actresses were superb. When Roach was forced by the plant manager to strip down to her underwear, her embarrassment was palpable. Both women beautifully conveyed the despair and humiliation of the job. The pain was real, yet still they managed to get through their lives; to wake up every day and go to a job that was a necessity, not a luxury.
H. Ford (B.F.A. ’06) played the anal-retentive plant manager Baquin, who cares more about a rare slug than the lives of his workers. Ford personifies the greed and shamelessness that permeates the upper ranks of the industry and managed to be comical at the same time. Every time he tried to say “move,” it came out “mooooove.” Perhaps when she wrote the play, it was Wallace’s way of saying that the people responsible for these awful conditions are no better than the beasts they slaughter. Or maybe it was Ford’s comedic mastery, but either way, he was the guy the audience loved to hate.
Cod, played by K. Harriman (B.F.A. ’06), is the daughter of a textile worker killed in a plant fire in the early part of the century. The girl, who is hired because she pretends to be a man, tries to rouse the workers into standing up for their rights. Her protests fell on largely deaf ears, until the end, when workers finally revolted. But, we are not really sure Cod exists. Maybe she is a metaphor. Maybe she is a ghost. It isn’t clear, but Harriman was perfectly ethereal in her treatment of the character.
The students of SMU did a great job bringing the horrors of the meat-packing industry to light.
The student direction was done amazingly well and the actors from Meadows never cease to amaze. Herbert (Brandon) will surely be a name we’ll see in the future.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the names of anyone in the cast on a marqee some day. The entire production was a success and it is nice to see that SMU isn’t afraid of risque subject matter. Well done.