Sometimes, there’s much more to a person than meets the eye.
This is certainly the case for Marlowe and Danny – two sanitation workers who hail from drastically different backgrounds, but who manage to find common ground on their route. The characters’ reluctant friendship is the centerpoint of Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of the off-beat comedy The Garbologists, on stage at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. through Dec. 5.
Starring as Marlowe is Ngozi Anyanwu, whose introduction to acting began during her childhood in Bensalem Township. An alum of Benjamin Rush Elementary, Cecelia Snyder Middle and Bensalem High School, Anyanwu was involved in the drama club throughout her years with the district.
“I then took it really, really seriously as soon as I got to college,” said Anyanwu, who received her MFA in acting from University of California, San Diego.
Ever since, Anyanwu has built quite the impressive resume as an actress and playwright, most recently appearing at the Atlantic Theater Company in her own play The Last of the Love Letters.
Now, she’s thrilled to bring the character of Marlowe to life in her Philadelphia-region debut.
The Garbologists, by Lindsay Joelle, is celebrating its co-world premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company and Pittsburgh’s City Theatre. Not only does it honor essential workers, who were pivotal throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, The Garbologists is a hopeful story about finding commonalities in uncommon places.
Anyanwu’s character Marlowe is a Black, Ivy League-educated newbie who recently joined the route of Danny (played by Steven Rishard), a white, blue-collar “mansplainer” who’s actually hiding a heart of gold.
When these two polar opposites are thrown together on Marlowe’s first day at the city sanitation department, they’re forced to find a steady rhythm, despite their differences. This odd couple starts their 6 a.m. shift trying to one-up each other while practicing the art of hunting for treasure in the trash.
However, when they find something on the curb too valuable to throw away, they’re forced to re-evaluate each other. Along the route, Danny slowly earns Marlowe’s trust by sharing hard-earned tricks of the trade. As their lives become increasingly entwined, their initial bickering gives way to a bond over the broken, beautiful things people discard in the trash.
“It’s an interesting play about relationships and friendships, and how you never know what other people are going through,” said Anyanwu. “I think the show is funny. It’s moving. It’s a good shot to the heart.”
Paige Price, producing artistic director at Philadelphia Theatre Company, which is now in its 47th season, has wanted to bring The Garbologists to the stage for some time.
“When I first read The Garbologists, the writing struck me as so deceptively funny, yet the themes of the play were really deep,” she said. “It was 2018 and we were talking about how relevant this show was even then. I mean, the metaphors about what people toss aside and how one person’s trash is another’s treasure, it sounded like pure gold, couched in an intimate buddy comedy with two unlikely truck mates. It just felt so fresh and I knew audiences who were just getting their theater sea legs would really enjoy this world premiere. I had no idea several years later this story would become so timely and relevant during the pandemic.”
When penning The Garbologists, playwright Joelle wanted it to be as authentic as possible. Five years of hands-on research and fieldwork, including personal tours by real sanitation workers of trucks, garages and the secret NYC Museum of Trash, went into its creation.
The Garbologists has been a long time in the making, but Joelle thinks it couldn’t be premiering at a better time.
“The play’s world premiere was postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, during which time sanitation men and women around the country proved how truly essential they are to our daily health and safety,” said Joelle. “Working one of the top five most dangerous jobs in the country, they are our nation’s unsung heroes, and I hope this funny, provocative, heartwarming play will shine a light on their stories.”
Tickets are on sale starting at $35. The theater’s 10Tix program provides a select number of seats at $10 for every performance. As a “thank you,” essential workers have advance access to a reserved set of 10Tix for each performance. Visit philatheatreco.org or call 215-985-0420.
Proof of vaccination is required for patrons, who must wear a mask while in the venue. Philadelphia Theatre Company is offering reduced capacity seating in its mezzanine for audience members who would like to take an additional precaution.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org