April 11, 2015

"Buzzer" Provokes the Right Kind of Noise

After-show talkbacks set my teeth on edge. Instead of talking about the show or what it provoked in them, most people just seem to want to show off. So I sighed inwardly when my theatergoing buddy Bill suggested we stay for the discussion after Buzzer, the fine new drama that opened in The Public Theater’s Martinson Theater space this week. But, with the exception of one windbag, the people (including Bill) who raised their hands and spoke after Buzzer were genuinely wrestling with the questions the play poses about white privilege and black achievement, black anger and white guilt.

That’s a tribute to the skill, honesty and courage of playwright Tracey Scott Wilson (who is black) and director Anne Kauffman (who is white). For they deal with these issues of race and class in a perceptive and intimately comprehensible way that is rarely seen on stage—or elsewhere for that matter (click here to read a Q&A with the playwright).

There are basically three people in Buzzer but they represent an interesting cross-section of the racial dynamics that might be most familiar to the people in the audience watching a play like this one.

Jackson is a black guy who grew up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn but managed to get a scholarship to Exeter and then went to Harvard and, like Barack Obama, on to Harvard Law School. Now on the track for a partnership at a fancy firm, he’s returning to the old neighborhood as a gentrifier.

His girlfriend Suzy is white. She’s Ivy-educated too but has chosen a different career path and teaches in a public school populated by poor kids of color. Yet she is more wary about the idea of living in a neighborhood where, as she says, none of their friends will visit.

None that is, except for Don, Jackson’s best friend since they were roommates at Exeter. Don’s white and he’s from a much wealthier family than Suzy’s but he’s also a classic fuck-up, who dropped out of school, has been in and out of rehab and is now angling to stay with Jackson and Suzy while he tries one more time to stay clean.

This isn’t the first time that Don has sought refuge with Jackson. After Don’s father threw him out, Jackson’s single mom took him in and while Jackson stayed in the house and studied, Don roamed the streets trying to score drugs, which he now thinks makes him far more of a neighborhood homeboy than Jackson.

Suzy’s not crazy about having the deadbeat Don around but the renovated apartment they share is the kind of place New Yorkers dream about: thick walls, high ceilings, long hallways, spacious rooms, top-of-the-line appliances, including a washer and dryer. (Sorry to go on and on but I dream about this stuff too.)

Set designer Laura Jellinek and lighting designer Matt Frey show just enough of the place so that our imaginations can fill in the rest. But they show virtually nothing of the outside, except for a few glimpses of the building’s lobby with the broken buzzer of the title, and so, more ominously, imaginations are set loose here too. 

Suzy stays in as much as possible to avoid encounters with men on the corner who say things to her as she passes by. Don ventures out and engages with their new neighbors to the point that he even invites one into the apartment. Jackson keeps his distance until events force him to do otherwise.

Some critics have griped that the interactions between the characters don't ring true. But, as in real life, Don, Jackson and Suzy do what they do for a variety of reasons—love, envy, fear, loneliness and, not to be discounted, feelings of obligation.  

The acting by Grantham Coleman as Jackson, Tessa Ferrer as Suzy and Michael Stahl-David as Don is uniformly excellent. And throughout this 90-minute update of the Othello story, the tension is kept high. Gestures are deliberately ambivalent. Words easily misconstrued. Truths reluctantly revealed.

The choices that are made spring from the desire on each character’s part to keep race out of the equation. But, of course, it seeps in and the exact nature of the taint must, as the talkback questions and comments indicated, be determined by those of us left staring at it.

No comments: