Act 1, Scenes 1–2
Last Updated on March 2, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322
It is September 29, 2008. Reports of the “largest single-day decline in stock market history” dominate the news, but the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, carry on their daily lives, enjoying samples of apple cider at the Annual Fall Festival.
Onstage, two men sit in a parole office in Reading. The parolee, Jason, is a white twenty-nine-year-old man; he has tattoos on his face that reveal that he is a white supremacist, as well as a black eye and a very short haircut. Evan, his parole officer, is a black middle-aged man, and he is “comfortably puffy.”
Evan questions Jason about his employment status and his place of residence, and Jason responds in monosyllables. When Jason explains that he is working as a soft pretzel baker and that he has a bed at a local shelter, Evan tries to be positive about these signs of progress, but Jason complains that the other residents are thieves. After a brief pause in conversation, Evan asks Jason to explain his black eye—a request that makes Jason defensive and uncomfortable. Jason’s disrespectful tone invites Evan to make his authority over Jason clear, and Evan mildly threatens to “make things very difficult” if Jason doesn’t cooperate.
Finally, Jason reveals that he was at Loco’s, a bar, and that while he was going to the bathroom, he was punched in the eye by a very large man who believed Jason was looking at his girlfriend. Evan asks Jason a difficult question: if Jason were to take a drug test, what might the test reveal? As Jason protests, claiming his innocence, Evan insists Jason pick up a nearby cup for a urine sample, enraging Jason. After a pause, Jason acknowledges that there is something on his mind. As Evan pushes him to explain himself, Jason asks Evan to “ease up,” but Evan reminds Jason that prison time awaits him should he be in any kind of trouble. Evan also tells Jason that the tattoos on his face are likely to cause him difficulty now that he is no longer in prison. Evan reveals that the tattoos make him “wanna punch [Jason] out”; nevertheless, he is “here to help.”
Eventually, Jason tells Evan that he had an unexpected encounter with Chris—an admission that makes Jason emotional. As Evan questions Jason about what happened, Jason struggles to explain himself, claiming that while in prison, he tried to deny his history with Chris.
At this moment, Evan turns around onstage. Now, he is facing Chris, a twenty-nine-year-old black man in tidy clothing. Evan asks Chris why he seems so nervous, and Chris explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well as he adjusts to life outside of prison. Chris tells Evan that he has a bed in the rectory of a local church thanks to a man named Reverend Duckett. Chris is applying for jobs, but the wages are low, and his prison record makes him unattractive to employers. Evan and Chris discuss other topics like prayer meetings and finishing college, but Chris is suddenly distracted. He tells Evan that he has recently seen Jason and his face tattoos; to Chris, Jason looked as if he had aged, which Chris finds upsetting. Chris’s description of this encounter with Jason is detailed: just outside a shop in Reading called Sneaker Villa, the two men saw each other. Chris rushed toward Jason, thinking Jason might try to avoid him. Suddenly, the two men were embracing.
It is January 18, 2000. Reports of the booming stock market make national news because it is “widening the income gap between the poorest and richest US families.” In Reading, Pennsylvania, a local ordinance concerning the ownership of aggressive dogs like pit bulls has been passed.
Onstage, three women are at a bar. Cynthia and Tracey dance drunkenly while their friend Jessie is slumped over at a table. Cynthia is black and forty-five years old, Tracey is the same age and white, and Jessie, who is Italian American, is also in her forties. Stan, a middle-aged white man with a limp, bartends, and when the two women invite him to dance with them, he refuses.
Tracey’s attempts to be alluring do not convince Stan, so they stop dancing as Stan asks them who is responsible for driving Jessie home. Tracey tries to wake Jessie while Cynthia identifies Jessie as the designated driver. Stan takes Jessie’s keys away and places them in a jar behind the bar, offering one more drink to Tracey; he assumes an insinuating tone with her, reminding her of a time in the past when they shared an intimate moment. As Tracey laughs to deflect attention away from her discomfort at this reminder from Stan, Oscar, the young Colombian American busboy, brings in some glasses and cleans the bar.
When Cynthia announces that she has to work the early shift the next morning, loud protests sound from Tracey, whose birthday they have been celebrating. Cynthia agrees to one more drink, and Stan joins them. As they discuss the success of the evening, Stan asks about Brucie, Cynthia’s former partner; the two women exchange a look, and Cynthia explains to Stan that when she let Brucie move back in with her before Christmas, Brucie left without warning, having stolen all of her Christmas presents and her fish tank. When Brucie reappeared a week later, high and hungry, they argued. The police arrived during the argument, and Cynthia was “cuffed, photographed and fingerprinted for disorderly conduct in [her] own damn house.” Though Cynthia acknowledges that Brucie is suffering thanks to the loss of his job at the plant, his drug use is intolerable to her.
Tracey, Cynthia, and Stan go on to discuss a recent article in the newspaper about a man they all know named Freddy, who burned his own house down after his partner, Maggie, broke up with him. Stan reveals that Freddy’s debts are overwhelming. He mentions another man they all know, named Clarence Jones, who “[c]ouldn’t handle the stress” of possibly losing his job at the plant.
Jessie wakes up briefly as Tracey and Cynthia discuss how to burn down one’s own house. Tracey asks Oscar about burning down houses, saying that he must know something about the topic because “Puerto Ricans are burning shit down all over Reading.” Oscar explains that he is Colombian and that he knows nothing about burning houses, but his exchange with Tracey grows tense when Tracey insists that he must know something about the subject. Cynthia tries to calm everyone while Stan tries to distract Tracey with more gossip about Freddy.
As Stan praises Freddy for helping him when his leg was injured at the plant, Jessie wakes up and orders another drink. Stan refuses to serve her, and when Jessie threatens to call her husband, Stan retaliates with a comment about Jessie’s ex-husband and his “beautiful young wife.” Jessie insults Stan, causing the other women to intervene, and suddenly, Jessie announces that she has to go to the bathroom. Oscar helps Jessie while Tracey and Cynthia talk about work.
Cynthia says that she might apply for a promotion, as she is tired of being on her feet for ten hours a day; she has aches and pains from working the machines at the plant, and they are becoming too much for her after working the same job for twenty-four years. Tracey says that she might also apply, even though she thinks it unlikely that the bosses will hire a woman. Stan’s views of the plant are also negative; he believes that the leaders of the plant don’t “understand the real cost, the human cost of making their shitty product.” Jessie emerges from the bathroom looking disheveled, and she tries once more to order another drink. When Stan denies her request, Jessie becomes belligerent. Tracey insists they all “stop complaining and have some fun.”