Get to know the lives of two sanitation workers in The Garbologists at Philadelphia Theatre Company

-Brenda Hillegas
photo by Ashley Smith and Wide Eyed Studio

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. We’ve heard it all before. And it’s true…I love a good free pile! But let’s dig deeper into that phrase and see what it could really mean.

The Garbologists is the story of Danny (played by Steven Rishard) who acts like a tough like, enjoys joking around and busting the balls of his co-workers (maybe a bit too much), and tells it like it is. We do eventually see that he has a heart and is caring, but that’s only because the rookie on their team- Marlowe (played by Ngozi Anyanwu)- brings it out in him. She’s an Ivy League educated woman who joins Danny on his early morning shift of trash collecting in New York. They’re polar opposites…at first…until their constant teasing and fighting bond them together and we find out they have so much more in common that either could imagine.

If you read my theatre reviews, you know I insist almost everything is a must- see. I say it because it’s true. I say it now because it’s incredibly true. Not only does this story give us a look at the lives of sanitation workers and what they go through daily to keep the streets clean, it’s a good lesson to never judge a book by its cover. It encourages us to let our guard down, get to know the people around us, and have empathy. The Garbologists is really funny, with both Rishard and Anyanwu nailing their lines and getting huge laughs out of the audience. But they also truly become those characters and give the audiences tears, gasps, and a general sense of how important essential workers are to our every day lives. These two performers are on stage for 90 minutes, non-stop, and give us their all. Every emotion is thrown at us and they play so well off one another.

For research for the production, playwright Lindsay Joelle went into the actual streets of America. She spent five years doing research and fieldwork with sanitation workers who generously showed her around their garbage trucks, garages, and even the secret NYC Museum of Trash! When PTC Producing Artistic Director Paige Price first read Joelle’s play, she had no idea how relevant this story would become so timely and relevant during the pandemic.

The set design, by Christopher Ash, is phenomenal. It reminded me a bit of what you see in RENT, but with piles and piles of identical looking trash bags scattered throughout the stage. And all of those bags have something in them and get thrown around. I kept thinking how hard it must be to reset this stage before every performance and how impressive it is for the characters in this show to know what to grab, when and where to throw it. Choreography isn’t just for dance!

Here in Philadelphia, we should feel lucky. First off, The Garbologists is here through December 5th and is a co-world premiere with City Theatre in Pittsburgh. That means we are seeing a new show, never-before-produced and we’re back at an in-person performance for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s 47th season! Second, our very own Terrill “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler- a sanitation worker turned community activist- was a major part of this performance by helping PTC and audiences celebrate essential workers through a new city wide #supportsanitationworkers campaign

Do people just set out their garbage in bags and expect some magical trash fairies to take it all away the next morning? Do people stop to think about who actually picks up their trash? Do you know their names? Do you know anything about them? Sanitation workers have one of the top five most dangerous jobs in the country. See this show. And then maybe reconsider how much you throw into one bag and make sure it couldn’t potentially harm the people hauling it away for you. Next time you see them, say hi. Say thank you. Tickets are available here.

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