The Take Away

  • Fun environment
  • Young cast of talented performers
  • White playwright, white director, and story of white heroism in the face of racism

In Our Pockets

 

Bill

I know several of the key company members… I also interviewed for a design position with the production and didn’t get a call back.  I grew up as the summary’s protagonist, the only mixed kid in a white, wealthy, suburb who was dark skinned enough to be identified as “black”

Chris 

I’ve been reviewing plays in Philly for a decade, so I’m pretty jaded and dead-hearted. That makes me hard to delight. My three or four-times great grandmother was (subcontinental) Indian, but that aside I’m as white as can be.  Also, I had a mild headache coming into the theater.

 

The Design

Bill

The lighting served the piece well.  It didn’t entirely drive the mood, but there were some interesting notes and at no time did I feel like I was lost as to the setting even though I might have lost the thread of the passage of time.

 I felt like some of the sound cues, while good choices, would change the framing of the piece and confuse an already nebulous lens.

Chris

I’m generally irritated by movie-style soundbacking, but this was fairly unobtrusive.

Bill

The costumes are well handled, and take the piece to a place that’s current enough, but still out of time.  

Chris

The “adult” characters wore white outfits with sketch-on defining elements. That fit the youthful play and worked very well.

The set seemed to indicate a kids hideout in the woods, which is perhaps where this play — framed in total as a kids play within a play — took place. But it included a huge, unused closed room which took up a third of the stage.

Bill

The set didn’t serve the play or the space well at all.  It fell into the trap of both too messy and too clean, which can happen when you create repurposed-object-sets.  It also left the director with no center stage, which became a blocking problem in the scenes where Carly is literally being thrust into center stage and the set didn’t allow it.

Bill

No fight choreographer is listed.  They could’ve used one, which might have avoided a couple of moments of actual collision that were supposed to be close choreography.

The music choices were interesting, if a bit problematic.

Chris

How were they problematic?

Bill

They were cute poppy choices, but nothing that would represent a person of color.
Performances

Chris

This was a very young cast playing much younger characters, and they brought youthful energy and adult intelligence to the roles.

Bill

Alison Ormsby and Jenson Titus Lavallee brought different bodies and motivations to their egos and alter egos and I always knew who they were. 

Chris

All of the actors did well creating complete people onstage, but Ormsby and Lavallee had to bring out a lot of different characters, and they delineated each and provided many of the funniest moments. I saw Lavallee give a nuanced lead performance in Exile’s Guards at the Taj, and it was great to see he has a wide range.  

Bill

Kishia Nixon brought as much depth to a flatly written character as possible and handled what must have been a difficult process without making sacrifices.

Chris

That’s true, the script didn’t give too much depth to Carly. But Nixon filled in the gaps. 

Bill

Frank Nardi’s Goon was believable and lovable and a very fleshed-out performance. Adam Howard also brought a sensitivity to Gandry that left me wishing for a resolve that never came.
Direction

Chris

This was an entertaining 90 minutes, and we have to credit that to Allison Heishman as well as her cast.

Bill

However, the direction didn’t do anything to change my expectations for the script.  I was worried the whole thing would be a whole nesting doll of white guilt working itself out and it sorta was.

Chris

Based on the synopsis I assumed the piece would be directed by a black director.

Bill

It feels like a super-meta recreation of the play within the play.  In the play, a majority white suburban town takes on the process of building a platform to highlight the problem of racism, and then they stand on it themselves… the play itself depicts a majority white company in an urban town, taking on the process of building a platform to highlight the problem of racism and then standing on it themselves.

Chris

I think Heishman succeeded in creating a fun experience, but having her direct seemed like another filter removing the audience from the content. We have a story of racism told through the lens of a white bad boy, created by a white playwright, directed by a white director. 

Bill

Both the script and the direction put Carly, a black character, center stage, forcing her to comment on or share things with someone else’s words. Having Kasual Owens-Feilds, the black assistant director, forced centerstage to do talkbacks to a majority white audience with a majority white production staff and a white writer echoed that. 

I’m infuriated by this need that white production companies have to build up platforms for people of color and then take the credit for themselves.

The Script

 

Chris

Playwright David Jacobi sets himself the task of capturing the perspective of junior high school kids, and he really succeeds. We get the feeling that these are real kids, and we understand their naivete and self-importance more when we see it portrayed by adults.

There’s a lot in the script to amuse and entertain and it’s very much a play for the times. It’s crucial to see white writers tackle race without trying to be didactic or overwrought, even if those attempts end up demonstrating subtle racism. Which, I’d argue this does.

Some of the play’s funnier moments use Carly, a middle-school black girl, as a tool for a well-meaning white teacher to demonstrate her white heroism in the quest to “end racism forever.” The playwright is perceptive in exposing how white people use stories of racism to virtue signal, praise themselves, and wrest control of the struggle away from POC.

That makes it peculiar that the protagonist of the script is a white male, who makes a self-sacrifice of white heroism to help ease the town’s tensions in the wake of a racist incident. Part of his motivation is his nascent sexual desire for a black female. But the main reason is to protect another white male, his academically achieving brother, from facing the consequences of the brother’s racist actions, because this punishment would jeopardize the brother’s privileged social trajectory. This is problematic, and I didn’t see the script grappling with these problems.

There’s also a reveal that one of the minor characters is actually mixed race, but this is used very much as a plot device. There’s no investigation of why he would want to pass, or on his thoughts about the racial issues central to the plot.

I also didn’t quite get the meta-framing. We stayed for the talk back and the AD made clear that it’s supposed to be the kids themselves putting on a play of the actions which took place over the preceding semester. I’m not sure what this framing added to the script, except to further remove us from the real-life events. The writer also included an added layer of meta near the end when he has a character say “we’ll all be cut from the second draft… but maybe this is the third draft.” Who, then, is the writer of the play within the play? The white male? What are the potentially problematic consequences of this authorial role? Or is it a group effort by all the kids, who would cut themselves from their own story?

I’m ranting and nitpicking a script which produced 90 enjoyable minutes of theater, and I’m doing some of the same things I call David Jacobi out for by interjecting my commentary over the voice of my POC collaborator and signalling my own virtue in my “hashtag woke” analysis. Nevertheless, I get the sense that the playwright and company were self-congratulatory about the fact that they entered the current conversation on race with this work. So they deserve a well-rounded critique on their role in that conversation. I didn’t want to read any published criticism of the work until we talked, but I suspect it was absent, because we’re all a bunch of white reviewers.

Accountability:

Bill

This play was for the primarily white audiences and white production companies to exorcise some of their white guilt over the production calendar of Philadelphia theater.

As the narrative is about race relations in a majority white town Azuka did a fine job with representation in its casting.  But the cast is what it is because of the narrative. The production team includes more people of color than are usually invited to the table.  The real decision making positions were still held by white people though.

Despite my criticisms, I believe that this is a necessary play now.  We need to have these conversations and we need to do what we can to work on the pervasive nature of white guilt, microaggressions, and white savior complex.

 

 

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