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September 28, 2011

"The Submission": Sound and Fury About Race

The producers of The Submission initially attempted to stir up buzz by suggesting that one character’s identity should be kept secret until people saw the play.  But they didn’t need to do that because The Submission, which opened last night in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is designed to get people buzzing without any extra prodding.  

For playwright Jeff Talbott has jumped into the free-for-all about race with his fists flying and his tongue wagging.  Here’s the premise of his play: Danny, a gay white guy, writes a gritty drama about a poor black family but submits it to a prestigious theater festival under the pseudonym Shaleeha G’ntamobi. He believes it sounds like a black name and that the judges will consider the play more authentic and worthy of doing if they think it’s been written by an African-American woman. 

The ruse works. The play is scheduled for production but, of course, Danny can’t show up for the rehearsals so he hires Emilie, a black actress, to impersonate the imaginary Shaleeha. Emilie’s supposed to relay Danny’s feelings about any necessary changes to the director and actors but, as dramaturgy would have it, she begins to have her own ideas about what the play should and shouldn’t say about black people. The bickering between them escalates. Inevitably, the angriest words get uttered. 

The audience gasped when those unsayable words were said at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw but it’s the stuff that gets said during the rest of the play that’s actually more provocative.  Because Talbott says a lot of things that most people—black, white, Asian, Latino—have thought at one time or another but are usually careful not to say aloud, at least not in racially mixed company. 

So it’s kind of refreshing to hear Danny sound off about his annoyance with theater companies that try to fulfill their diversity obligations by scheduling plays by African-Americans during February’s Black History month whether the plays are good or not and then to have Emilie fire back that it pisses her off that black plays are rarely done any other time no matter how good they are.

Similarly, while it may make some audience members uneasy, there’s clearly honest pain motivating his belief that the bias he’s experienced as a gay man qualifies him to understand how black people feel when they’re discriminated against and hers that his being white and male give him options that a black woman can never have.

Talbott, the first recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award that Arthur Laurents set up to support emerging playwrights, leavens all this heavy stuff with heaping doses of humor and director Walter Bobbie does his part to keep the action popping along. 

They’ve also assembled a top-notch design team, lead by David Zinn, who’s created a handsome paneled set that nimbly morphs from the backroom at Starbucks into a living room in the Village and elsewhere. 

But they haven’t figured out how to transform Danny or Emilie into more than mouthpieces for the points of view Talbott has them espouse. Neither character comes across as a believable person, despite the considerable talent and valiant efforts of theater darling Jonathan Groff and the Juilliard-trained firecracker Rutina Wesley, as comfortable on stage as she is in her day job as a co-star of the HBO vampire series “True Blood (click here to read her thoughts on the show.)”  

There is also strong support from Eddie Kaye Thomas as Danny’s boyfriend and Will Rogers as his best friend from drama school (Yale, of course) who struggles to maintain allegiances to both Danny and Emilie.

Talbott himself takes no sides, proffers no solutions and doesn't offer much insight either.  He's just content with the self-satisfaction of having let it all hang out. He also makes the mistake of having his characters cite lines from Danny’s supposedly fantastic play, which, judging by the quoted excerpts, isn’t.

Still, this play is tapping into something in the zeitgeist.  It’s the third one I've seen or heard about in less than a month that has dealt with the issue of who has the right to tell black people’s stories.   

Chasing Heaven, which played at last month’s New York International Fringe Festival, looked at the issue through the lens of a black scholar trying to update a Porgy and Bess-style musical (click here to read my review).  The Kennedy Center is currently running a revival of Trouble in Mind, Alice Childress’ 1956 play about an integrated company working on a black play.  And, of course, there’s the flap over the new revival of Porgy and Bess into which Stephen Sondheim jumped with his fists flying and his tongue wagging (click here for a catch up on that).

So people are clearly already talking about the issues that The Submission raises. The question is how to pay them more than just lip service.

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