Playwright Joan Holden was a star of the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s golden age, when the counterculture and radical politics erupted across Northern California. Her comedies, including The Independent Female (1970) and the co-authored The Dragon Lady’s Revenge (1971), helped define the tone and edge of Bay Area agitprop. She would later adapt Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed for the stage. Tonight her 40th and newest work, Counter Attack!, in which a dozen actors portray more than 50 characters, goes up at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage. This non-Mime Troupe show is, nevertheless, directed by Mime Troupe stalwart Sharon Lockwood and was commissioned by the Stagebridge Theater Company, a group dedicated to bringing theater to seniors. She spoke to Frying Pan News from her home in San Francisco.
Frying Pan News: What drove you to write this play?
Joan Holden: A phone call. “Would I like to adapt this book about waitresses?” I thought, Another waitress play? Then I read the book, Candacy Taylor’s Counter Culture. She asked the question, “What is it about these women who are 65, 75 years old and still slinging hash?” What she found was the flip side of the waitresses in Nickel and Dimed – it was [Barbara Ehrenreich’s] wage slaves versus stars of mom-and-pop diners and coffee shops who enjoy the excitement and control the floor. I knew that because I’d worked as a waitress.
FPN: There was a time not that long ago when people would dismiss certain jobs as “dead-end,” including the kind of assembly-line jobs people would kill for today. Is “dead-end” something that’s in the beholder’s eye?
JH: Yeah! I [used to] read about the “terrors of assembly line” but there’s also camaraderie in those jobs. And pride. I suppose unskilled jobs like stocking shelves at Walmart are dead-end because you’ll never make a decent living at it. Waitresses are thought of as losers who are washed up and can’t do any better. But I made $2 an hour at the Claremont Hotel in 1960, with benefits. I was unionized, though – only the big places are organized today.
FPN: What makes a job a good job today – does it have to have health-care benefits?
JH: Today that’s all anyone looks for – jobs with health-care plans, because medical costs have skyrocketed. We didn’t worry about our health in 1960 – we were young!
FPN: Are we looking at a time when all our adored coffee shop servers and diner waitresses will be replaced by baristas and foodie-wise waiters?
JH: In 20 years they might not be here. I took a motorcycle trip cross-country last year and in every town that was more than 50 miles from a Walmart there’d be a downtown diner that was full and had a star waitress who knew everybody. But they may be a vanishing breed.
FPN: Who is Counter Attack!’s main character?
JH: A 40-year waitress named Marlene, played by Joan Mankin – who was in my first Mime Troup play. Marlene’s in a rivalry with a much younger waitress. I wanted to answer a question: What would make a young woman covet the money at a diner counter? The answer is because she’s an immigrant. It’s an All About Eve story.
FPN: Is there one stereotype that was cherished by the New Left that you’ve come to discard over the years?
JH: I prefer “archetypes” – we’re all types. Is there a character I’m ashamed to have written because it was too simple-minded? Not in comedy, but in drama, yes. It would be the “revolutionary fighter,” the Vietcong fighter who was too all-good and noble.
FPN: Do you think that in some way activists of your generation are like lifer waitresses – they’ve stayed true to a cause over the years without making any money off their work?
JH: Yes! Because they love it. Because it’s not drudgery to them – lifer waitresses choose that work. For them hell is retirement. Inaction is hell for the true activist.
FPN: What is the lesson of your play?
JH: Always tip your waitress well.