Racism in the United States: Seeing Things Not Just in Black and White

I am sorry to say that I am blogging about two shows that have already closed, but at least if you see a theatre presenting of one these, you’ll know to check them out for yourself. A few weeks ago, I caught the LAByrinth Theater Company’s production of Brett C. Leonard’s Unconditional, which ran at the Public Theater through March 9, and The Barrow Group’s production of John Ahlin’s Gray Area, featuring the comedic talents of one of the stars of Flux’s Riding the Bull, Will Ditterline.
The former focuses on the lives of 9 New Yorkers as they struggle with biracial couplings, loneliness, betrayal and revenge in contemporary New York City. The play starts with quite a bang, languishing in several agonizing minutes as we watch a lynching victim, standing on chair, noose around neck, bound and gagged, beg for his life as his torturer enjoys a smoke and a whiskey while circling his prey. Finally the proverbial chair is kicked from under the man and thus commences a patchwork of scenes, à la Crash which features the lives of various scumbags, lowlifes and gangsters interwoven with one or two characters of relative honesty–showing that racism and prejudice exist not only within the white culture, but within black and Hispanic cultures as well. Overall, I was drawn to the characters with some real vitality and complexity, especially Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Jessica and Trevor Long’s Daniel (the two have a somewhat absurd and touching scene where they connect late at night via telephone through an online dating service). While the rest of the cast does their best to bring to life these characters, many of them were not as fully fleshed out as I would have liked and a few were, I felt, somewhat miscast. On the plus side, I was completely drawn in by Mark Wing-Davey’s direction and Mark Wendland’s scenic design, with it’s sliding doors and screens, offering us a murky view of who these people really were, as well as providing a sense of why we choose to stay within locked views of race, sex, marriage and loyalty. Mr. Leonard is a promising playwright and I look forward to what he and the LAByrinth have to offer next.
And now for something completely different, we have John Ahlin’s Gray Area, which ran at the Barrow Group through March 16. This was a sharp and hilarious deconstruction of race relations as played through a game of Confederate vs. Union wits. A retiring NY theatre critic, known for his ruthless opinions and arrogance, makes a crack at the expense of Civil War reenactors. When a group of proudly Confederate reenactors read this in the paper, the leader of the group (playwright John Ahlin) decides that the best revenge is to kidnap the man from his comfortable Northeast home and bring him south of the Mason Dixon to teach him a lesson in war camp life. What ensues is a study of century old prejudices turned on their head (the first being that Southerners are stupid, backward, racist, trailer trash) and ends in intelligent battles, such as a vocabulary bee, Civil War trivia, debates and theoretical musings, such as what it would be like to be saved by the super heroine, Eve of All Battles. Will Ditterline is wonderfully on point in every moment as the sweet (but somewhat slow to catch the point) Horse. In fact, the entire cast creates a wonderful ensemble and the set, complete with forest and dirt, really captures the essence of backwoods Mississippi (or was it Alabama–or Georgia–gotta check out the play to know for sure!!!).
Both plays had some great ideas to offer and forced me to take a look at my role at perpetuating unfounded prejudices in my society. And that is why I believe in the necessity of theatre–so we can have a civil and peaceful forum to examine the ugliness within our culture and hopefully emerge having discovered a bit more beauty.

1 Comment on "Racism in the United States: Seeing Things Not Just in Black and White"

  1. August Schulenburg · March 29, 2008 at 7:05 pm · Reply

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