Willingly sitting on hold: 'Saluti, Grace Palmer' is a poignant gaze at women at work

We stood in the lobby, 15 minutes past start time, with no program and no hint at what was about to happen, waiting. Then the doors opened and a full Links Hall whitebox audience sat waiting, classic hold music acting as the cherry on top of the early ‘90s office setting before us. Ten minutes went by and the music stopped, the audience quiet and readily waiting.

In came more hold music.

The performance that would ensue five minutes later was a wild and fast-paced comedy that used multiple on-stage costume changes, flying shoes, oversized handbags, endless manila folders and office papers, telephone cords, a “sexy” thrift store mannequin and Saran wrap to cleverly portray the classic, if antiquated, woman’s plight.

“Saluti, Grace Palmer: Secrets Of Virtuous Cycle Management” took place at Links Hall for one night only on May 31 as a part of Links Hall’s 40th Anniversary Season. Artistic duo Samantha Allen and Devika Wickremeshinghe used early ‘90s office sexism to highlight the hypocrisy of present-day feminist advancements. Through dance and elements of theater, they engaged the audience in the humor of stylized and recognizable put downs, while emphasizing the serious undertones of these situations and the emotional and physical baggage many women continue to carry today.

The piece began with both women moving through a zombie-esque dance with their backs to the audience, oversized blazers on backwards and pulled over their faces, hair hanging down. They then continued through exasperated phone calls with the never-present, male superior Rod, through an obnoxious TEDx talk, through a duel between competing women and a few other short vignettes that led to Allen’s and Wickremeshinghe’s wild mental and physical breakdown.

While often avoiding formal choreography--with the exception of a few dance breaks--Allen and Wickremeshinghe used the weight and athleticism of emotions resonated through the body to demonstrate the honest, internal state of the working, do-it-all superwoman despite posed or outward appearances. In an early scene, partnered postmodern collapses bring both women spiraling down to the floor repeatedly, representing visible failure and lack of productivity in the workplace. This movement resurfaced later, then portraying the internal defeat of a woman continually taken advantage of.

The significance of “Saluti, Grace Palmer” became clear towards the end, as Allen and Wickremeshinghe repeat the phrases “I’m sorry,” “I couldn’t have made it here without your guidance,” and “Could I help you with anything else?” While speaking, they moved through an attempt to clean the papers strewn across the stage (but really just spreading them around and adding to the disorganized space), into a series of vigorous bows.

Over time the bowing became suggestive, with Allen’s and Wickremeshinghe’s motions mimicking that of a blow job as they buried their faces into the oversized handbags--though none of this happens in an overtly sexual or pleasurable way. Suddenly, 1980s music cuts out and stark silence fills the space.

Allen and Wickremeshinghe quietly pull their heads from the handbags and turn to sit with their backs towards the audience, now topless. A feeling of emptiness emanates from their bodies through the space as they sit there in silence, breathing, with Wickremeshinghe softly gathering the papers around her and placing them in her bag.

In this moment, I personally felt the weight of what it means to go to dramatic lengths to please a superior--what it means to let an inferior peer take advantage of someone’s desires to please and to succeed.

With the two bodies stripped of gaudy clothing and no music or moving props to distract from the women in the space, the audience was confronted head-on with the seriousness of the earlier comedic vignettes, of the ‘80s and ‘90s archetypes that ring true today despite appearances of feminist advancements in contemporary society. The audience was confronted with emotional depth and desperation that transcended the singular image of sexism in a dated workplace.

The piece ended shortly after this moment, and with having had only 30 minutes of the duo’s bodies in the space, I’m left wanting more. We moved from multiple scenes of satirical humor to mere minutes of somber emotion, and I wish Allen and Wickremeshinghe had explored that final headspace more.

I left the performance that night with my head reeling from my own takeaways of such smart comedy and such an impactful ending, but I wanted to see how the artists would have developed their personal stance on those final moments if the piece had continued 15 minutes longer. Allen and Wickremeshinghe touched on so many aspects of the timeless culture of sexism permeating our society, often on the surface level, and I would have appreciated if they had taken more time to expand on the greater significance of these elements.

What do they have to say about how we should approach this feeling of emptiness and defeat that women often feel when drowning in a patriarchal society?

Regardless of the brevity of the piece, “Saluti, Grace Palmer” left a full audience with a visceral work to discuss. The use of humor and weird props created a bridge for anyone to easily enter into a conversation on the various ways women work for our society and society works against women, while movement and embodied emotions allowed the audience to empathize with anyone struggling to combat the outrageous expectations imposed on them daily.

In the only situation I would willingly sign on to sit through 15 minutes of being on hold, “Saluti, Grace Palmer” was a treat, and I hope to see Allen and Wickremeshinghe present this work or a version of it in Chicago again.