Spinning Into Butter
Theatre Works continues to have one of their most successful seasons by presenting the Northern California premier of Rebecca Gilman’s explosive drama Spinning Into Butter. This is a cutting edge play that offers an insightful and unsettling look at what happens when a black student at a predominantly white college begins receiving racist notes at his dormitory room.
This play had successful runs at the Royal Court in London, the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Margo Jefferson of the New York Times called the play a “post comic, post tragic farce” but she said it well worth seeing.
Sarah Daniels, played by talented actress Lorri Holt, is the earnest dean of students at a mainly white college in Vermont. She is having a bad day. The dean is kind hearted but tongue-tied in her efforts to secure a scholarship for a student under the bureaucratic funding of minorities. Sarah suggests that he list Hispanic or Puerto Rican under the minority label. He insists that he is a Nuyorican, not Hispanicand that he's “never been to Puerto Rico.”
But nothing can prepare her for her next crisis: one of the few African-American students on campus finds threatening notes posted on his dorm room door. While Sarah’s suggestion is to speak with the threatened student, the administrators and faculty call for campus meetings where everyone can talk about racism. However, the faculty does most of the talking and the students just listen. This ends up fanning the flames of conflict by dividing the student population further. There are twists and turns in this intriguing play and the playwright’s dialogue sparkles. Ms. Gilman deftly cuts to the heart of white America’s ambivalence and intrinsic misunderstanding of the non white experience.
Lorrie Holt is superb in her 20 minute diatribe against racism and the perils of political correctness in the second act. The long speech probes the self inflicted wounds of a self righteous civilization. She gives a performance of technical excellence and a hard, profuse insight of white America.
Warren Keith, as the obnoxious and narcissistic professor, is first rate in his performance. He is either suspecting or disapproving of everybody. Dan Hiatt as Sarah’s ex-lover and Margaret Schenck as the status conscious establishment toady are superior and they magnify the impression of some teachers in liberal arts colleges today.
Two young actors to watch in the future are Brian Stevens as the Nuyorican student and Robert Gallagher as the white student Greg Sullivan. Both are brilliant in cameo roles. Brian plays his role with spit and fire and the scenes between him and Sarah are some of the strongest in the play. It is interesting to see the dynamics shifting between the two in their two big scenes.
The student who receives the threatening notes is never seen on stage. In an interview with Dan Bacaizo of TheaterMania, the playwright said that this is a play about how “white people objectify black people. To have Simon (the Afro-American) come on stage would make that point moot, almost. I wanted to force the audience to see where their imaginations went in terms of who and what Simon was. If he shows up on stage, they’re not forced to imagine him anymore”.
The cast also includes Tom Blair as the security guard with a heart who is right on the mark. His quiet manner helps the more explosive parts of the drama. Amy Glazer’s production is resplendent, evenhanded and expertly paced.
This is a play that makes you revisit about your thoughts on white America. The title of the play is drawn from the tale of Little Black Sambo in which a group of tigers, after threatening Sambo and stealing his new clothes, chase after themselves in a frenzied circle, ignoring their vulnerable victim and eventually transforming themselves into a harmless pool of butter.
Spinning Into Butter runs through November 4 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. Call 650-903-6000 for tickets or order on line at www.theatreworks.org. The next production will be the delightful festive farce Charley’s Aunt at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. It runs from November 28 through December 30. Tickets are now on sale at the same number.