Eight months ago, American Stage presented Bill Maxwell and Beverly Coyle's Parallel Lives, and I complained in this column that the show had a significant flaw. The intention of the play was to examine the effect of Jim Crow laws on ordinary blacks and whites in the South. But while the African-American character seemed adequately representative of blacks victimized by segregation, its white protagonist was a minister's daughter who had liberal, tolerant views, and could hardly be confused with the ordinary bigot in the street.
Boasting such an admirable white character, the play missed out on its main chance: to provide real catharsis through a candid, no-holds-barred look at the scope of white racism throughout the Jim Crow South. What the play needed, instead of this upstanding white woman, was an "ordinary" white — not a Ku Klux Klanner, but not a card-carrying member of the ACLU either — who accepted segregation, never complained about separate schools, restaurant sections and water fountains, and who naturally absorbed widely held views about the inferiority of blacks. Such a character — and there must have been thousands and thousands of them — might have exposed the continuing tragedy that is American racism, and might have persuaded white spectators to investigate how much of the racist poison still circulates through their systems.
Well, a new production at American Stage redresses the imbalance. Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter is precisely about what remains of white racism, especially among the supposedly "enlightened" whites who embrace political correctness.
Setting her parable in a New England college, Gilman shows us four college officials who would like to believe that they're entirely without prejudice in their dealings with people of color. But things aren't that simple — at least, not for the one character who's most capable of self-analysis. That character — Dean of Students Sarah Daniels — is too sensitive and authentic to let her prejudices go unnoticed, and by the end of the play, she's searching painfully for every trace of the racism that she's convinced is still a part of her. Her confessions are shocking in just the way that Parallel Lives should have been: I can't imagine that white audience members won't feel compelled by the play to take another look at their preconceptions. And though I can't promise that the play will necessarily change anyone, it can certainly provoke a chain of thought that might lead to a transformation. One really can't expect more from political theater.
The plot of Spinning Into Butter concerns Belmont College in Vermont, a mostly white institution with a Dean of Students — Daniels — who's genuinely interested in the welfare of minority students. One day an African-American student reports that someone's been pinning threatening, racist notes up on his door. The information puts the college in turmoil. The police are called in, and then the FBI. A faculty committee decides to hold public forums on racism, but black students find one of the participating deans so patronizing, they decide to boycott. A white student starts a group called Students for Tolerance, but it seems he's mostly interested in improving his application to law school. As the racist notes keep coming and the pressure builds, Dean Daniels' white colleagues do their best to demonstrate that bigotry is an unacceptable feature of college life. But Dean Daniels turns inward, admitting the racism in herself even as she continues to try to help minority students. In the land of the dishonest, the honest woman is a pariah: Authenticity, it turns out, just may cost Daniels her job. There's one final twist of events, and then the forces of oblivion move in to overtake the beginnings of wisdom.
Julie Rowe is the actress who plays the self-questioning Dean Daniels, and the good news is she plays her brilliantly, with stunning artistry. It's hard to believe that this is the same actress who so dazzled a few months ago as Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Whereas Hogan was earthy and tough and a dreamer, Daniels is urban and nervous and a little desperate, dedicated to her students and disappointed in her colleagues.
But Rowe isn't the only performer who stands out here: Brian Shea is wonderful as Professor Ross Collins, a small-town Lothario who's no match for his paramours, and Todd Bazzini is first class as Hispanic student Patrick Chibas, who finds everything Dean Daniels does offensive and insensitive. Also top-notch is Hersha Parady as know-it-all Dean Catherine Kenney: With colleagues like this, it's no wonder Daniels seems skittish.
The other performers — Michael Dayton as Dean Strauss, Michael Crockett as security guard Mr. Meyers, and Scott Wooten as student Greg Sullivan — turn in adequate, if less than totally convincing performances. Brenda Sparks' direction is lucid, however, and Lora LaVon's costumes remind us that neither students nor college administrators are renowned for their fashion sense. There is a problem, though, with Abigail Hart-Gray's set, a college dean's office surrounded by Plexiglas panels. I suppose that the gradual removal of the panels is supposed to represent a phony transparency giving way to the unmediated truth. But the fact is, the panels just interfere with our enjoyment of the first scenes of the play, and raise all sorts of questions about the true size of Daniels' office. There's no problem with Todd Olson's sound design, though: from the Baroque to the bizarre, it nicely points to the dominant atmosphere of each scene.
I won't claim that Spinning Into Butter is the last word on contemporary racism; the subject is too big, too complicated to allow for a single definitive treatment. But I can't think of another play that's as searching and as canny, or that shows us the subject with so many of its ambiguities intact. If you're looking for a drama that will get you and your friends talking, or one that'll provoke you to a private reevaluation of your own principles, this is the one. It's smart and honest and resembles nothing else.
Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.