14 July 2007: Gilman, Spinning into Butter

New Century Theatre, Theatre 14, Smith College. Directed by Sam Rush

The somewhat awkward title has reference to that children’s classic of racist renown, Little Black Sambo. Rebecca Gilman arranges for a précis of the story to be told late in the second act. By this time, the racial discord that has beset Belmont College, the fictional Vermont school that provides the setting for this comedy-drama, has caused a great deal of trouble, leading to the decision of one student, a “student of color,” who prefers to identify himself as New Yorican, to transfer to some other college, and also to the resignation under pressure of Sarah Daniels, the central character, from her deanship of students. In the process, the play has raised some serious questions and has attempted to get at us where we live — with, finally, mixed success.

The racial incident is provoked by a series of blatantly racial messages sup­pos­edly fixed to the dormitory door of an African-American student who rooms by himself and is a very “quiet” kind of person. It later turns out that he himself, for reasons unknown or at least undisclosed, has written the notes. Belmont Col­lege, like Vermont itself, is predominantly white, and the three deans — Sarah, Catherine Kenny, and Burton Strauss — attempt to take immediate action, but they differ widely on how to approach the situation. Sarah thinks they should talk to the student first, and in fact does so, but the others see better, more public alternatives. Meanwhile, Sarah has attempted to “reward” the New Yorican stud­ent with a large scholarship, but she ends up offending him and, soon, his father as well, both of whom insist that the term for their ethnic identity is not “Latino” or “Puerto Rican” but “New Yorican,” a designation meant to distinguish per­sons of Puerto Rican descent who have, however, never been to Puerto Rico but lived all their lives in New York. The student, Patrick Chibas, is a test case, and Sarah, with seemingly the purest of motives, and with constant apology for say­ing the wrong thing, fails the test. It leads to Patrick’s decision, in the second act, to leave Belmont for some place where he can be accepted for what he is.

The play is amusing in the first act and interesting in the second. But there are some tendencies toward situation comedy — I mean to say “sitcom” — that tend to trivialize matters. And Sarah’s former boyfriend, a faculty member named Ross Collins, is something of a jerk in the first act — he has not told Sarah of his connection with “Petra” and woos her feelings by acting like a — “jerk” is the only word — but Gilman’s dramaturgical needs override his sitcom jerk status of Act I, and he becomes Sarah’s more intelligent, sympathetic confidant in Act II. We don’t know where this new-found maturity came from, if not from Gilman’s need to have a listener for Sarah, who has much of a shocking nature to reveal in Act II. For that matter, we are quite unprepared for Sarah’s revelation, in the long monologue spoken to Ross, that she does in fact have some deep, troubling racist feelings of her own. She has left an African-American college in Chicago to run away from her conflict, but it has followed her to lily white Vermont and gotten her into much more trouble than she ever had in Chicago.

Cate Damon, a skillful, articulate actress, is just right for the role of Sarah, just as she was right, a few seasons back, for the chief character in The Heidi Chron­icles. She is expert at playing a young, naïve woman with enough intelligence to attempt to forge a life for herself outside the common paths, but not resourceful enough to grapple head-on with the conflicts in her psyche or the problems that the world at large has an uncanny ability to match up with her problems. She wins the audience’s attention and sympathies from the start, partly because most anyone would feel for her as victim of the callow, unreflective Ross of Act I. When she attempts to return to him the book of poetry by Rilke that he gave her, she says, “Keep that; it turned my life around.” But because we are squarely on her side, scoffing as we do at her two fellow administrators, jealous, pompous, and small-minded, the revelation of deep racist animosities in Act II is shocking. The audience was caught in a rapt, rigid silence all through the long speech.

What are we to make of this? It seems finally clear that the point of the play is that we are all in the same respect, to some extent, racists. If this very attractive young woman, besieged by adversity despite her very best attempts and, as Patrick exasperatedly points out, her constant apologies, cannot be said to be free from these terrible tendencies to objectify and condemn, or idealize, for that matter, those of another “color,” then none of us can declare ourselves to be above that.

As we exited the theatre, three elderly ladies were going out just ahead of us. One of them said to the others, “Were we supposed to learn something from that?” — in a tone of irritation. Indeed, we were. Gilman has followed a familiar Shavian technique, that of including in the cast of characters one who functions as a surrogate for the audience. In Major Barbara it is Chollie, who observes in Act III, “We all have to put things together somehow, doncha know?” Gilman’s var­iation is to make her central character the surrogate. Sarah is intended to stand in for all of us, no matter how reluctant we may be to be told that, yes, you too have these inadmissible feelings, and you are not being honest if you don’t admit it. Somehow I felt myself being subtly patronized by the playwright, who claims to know better than I know myself how I feel. It was vaguely irritating, I must admit, despite the fine performances and sharp direction by Sam Rush.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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