Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Yunia's remark underscores my own failure of imagination. When I heard Mixed Blood Theatre's final production for this season–and the final new production to be mounted under Artistic Director Jack Reuler's incredible tenure–would be based on over a hundred interviews with people in every part of the country, asking them to "imagine a United States without racism," I was disappointed. I envisioned a montage of pithy and poignant statements, recited by actors each assuming a series of personas, spouting out the myriad responses collected. While that could be an interesting exercise, bringing together the wide range of views on race–and particularly the role of race in our national life–I didn't imagine it having actual characters or any form of narrative to clutch at my attention.
Fortunately, playwright and director Seema Sueko's imagination proves to be far more suited to this project than mine. Sueko, bringing her impressive array of credits at regional theaters around the country to the Twin Cities for the first time, conducted those interviews, then sifted out arguments, trends, patterns, types and perspectives to create seven characters, in addition to teacher Dee, who find themselves in a classroom where their assignment, written on a chalkboard with resolute energy by Dee, is "Imagine a U.S. without Racism." The students have been registered for the class by some omnipotent force, as if caught up in an episode of "The Twilight Zone," and at first resist Dee's efforts. Soon enough, though, one by one, they face their classmates and begin to describe, and then enact, their feelings about this daunting assignment.
As one might expect, the seven students comprise a variety of racial, class and gender types. Kenji is a fourth generation Asian American banker, married to Khadija, an African American fundraiser for a nonprofit. Across the street in their gentrifying neighborhood a Trump flag flies, which especially makes Khadija uneasy. Lawrence is a white man, desperate for a loan to keep his small family farm afloat. Sally, a middle-aged white woman, insists she is not racist, though her notion of what constitutes racism is quite facile. Harrison is a Black police officer, tasked to address the changing patterns of crime on his beat. Birch is a white, nonbinary college student who lives in the basement of their family home, and is at odds with the attitudes and behaviors on the floors above him. Finally, Yunia is the Native woman, a victims' advocate with a capacity for seeing the big picture.
Over the course of ninety compelling minutes, this septet unveil their thoughts about racism, sometimes stripping away–goaded by their teacher's sly instruction–their stated thoughts to unleash their actual feelings. As they enact occurrences from their lives, their paths cross and the characters begin to open up to learning about one another, to the possibility of breaching the chasms that keep them apart. The play also leads to the interface between race, class, and economics of American society, suggesting that they are too entwined to address one without the others.
The play is not intended to be naturalistic. Yes, the situation is contrived and the characters handcrafted to represent a wide swath of demographics. As playwright, Sueko makes this artifice work by continuously using the glimpses of their lives as part of teacher Dee's repertoire of instructional tools, so that we don't feel unsettled when the play jumps back to the question facing these students. The classroom assignment, and not the intricacies of her students' lives, remains the central focus. This is accomplished with a good deal of humor, along with expressions of anger, fear, sorrow and compassion–though the last arrives only through the greatest of effort, not so different from real life.
As director, Sueko draws out performances that–for the most part–convey authenticity in the ways the characters respond to one another, and the halting moves by which they consider change. Scenes meld seamlessly into one another, always bringing us back to the classroom and the assignment that must be completed before class can be dismissed. And–spoiler alert–class is finally dismissed. But the good news this implies is tempered with the harsh recognition that this is one classroom, one small group of people in a sea of Americans who have yet to be signed up for this course.
In the role of Dee, Faye Price is at the center, a demanding instructor who pushes her students–and the play–to reach higher. From the start, Price gives a terrific performance, rising to the sublime when she allows herself to drift into remembrance of the one time in her life she didn't feel the weight of racism bearing down upon her. Tellingly, it was not in the United States.
Of the other cast members, Kurt Kwan as Kenji, Michelle Barber as Sally, Warren C Bowles as Harrison, Lisa Suarez as Yunia, Jiavani as Khadija, and Terry Lynn Carlson as Lawrence (and briefly, as Harrison's white partner police officer), all stand out. Each have opportunities to shine in a particular scene that illuminates their perspective, while completely believable in their interactions with on another. Only Jayce Hanson, as Birch, seems less than fully present, coming across more as a type than a person. Whether this is in the performance or the way in which the character is written, it is the only weak link in an otherwise stellar ensemble performance.
Joe Stanley's set greets the audience entering the theater looking like a typical community college classroom–except for the presence of blackboards, which have been replaced by the ubiquitous whiteboards. Perhaps that is intentional, as the sharp sound of Dee writing on the board with chalk would not be nearly as effective were it the timid squeak of a dry-erase marker. Classroom walls cleverly unfold to depict interiors of the students' homes, without them ever leaving the "classroom". Zahra Jangbar's modest costumes convey the life lived by each character without calling attention to themselves. Karin Olson's lighting, Scott Edwards' sound, and Victor Zupanc's original music all contribute to a top tier production.
A final word about the legacy of producer Jack Reuler. In 1976, Reuler founded Mixed Blood as a twenty-two year old. That was 46 years ago. In that time, Mixed Blood has mounted scores of plays, some commissioned new works, others fresh from success in New York or on other stages–and always focused on the commonality of human beings, challenging divisions of race, class, gender, abilities, religion, national origin, or language. He also broke through expectations about where theater is done, staging plays in the behind-the-scenes chambers of a minor league baseball stadium, in a convention center with audience members taken through the scenes on golf carts, and in front of live animals at the Como Park Zoo. Mixed Blood has received innumerable awards for its work, and in 2006 Reuler was the second individual to receive a Lifetime Achievement Ivey Award. Through all this success, he remains the most unassuming, gentle, approachable of men in this or any field of endeavor.
Mark Valdez, who has worked on and off with Mixed Blood over the past decade along with a host of other experience in theater, takes command next season, and I have confidence Mixed Blood will be in good hands. Still, the legacy Jack Reuler leaves behind is enormous, beyond any ability to quantify. This play, pointing us in the direction of a better world with the admonition that "nothing is difficult to imagine," is a fitting capstone to that legacy.
Imagine a U.S Without Racism runs through May 1, 2022, at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Name your price ticketing for all performances. For information and tickets go to mixedblood.com or call 612-338-6131.
Playwright and Director: Seema Sueko; Set Design: Joe Stanley; Costume Design: Zahra Jangbar; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Properties Design: Kim Ford; Composer: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Liz Engleman; Stage Manager: Colleen Lacy; Assistant Stage Manager: Kolie Shaw; Producer: Jack Reuler.
Cast: Michelle Barber (Sally), Warren C. Bowles (Harrison), Terry Lynn Carlson (Lawrence), Jayce Hanson (Birch), Jiavani (Khadija), Kurt Kwan (Kenji), Faye M. Price (Dee), Lisa Suarez (Yunia).