Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Like many contemporary couples, Michelle and Robert meet online, and after some conversations via email and on the phone, have their first face to face meeting in a coffee shop. Each is intrigued by the qualities they sense in the other, with a feeling that it might be "right"in spite of, and not because of, the obvious fact that they are of different races. The Viking and the Gazelle was written and produced (under the auspices of The Waterfront Productions) by real-life married couple William P. Bengtson and Suzanne Bengtson, who based the play on their own journey as a mixed-race couple very much like Robert and Michelle. Since we know that the Bengtsons have made it past the minefield and seem to be still very happily together, from the start we need not worry about where this budding romance will lead.
However, their nearest and dearest are pretty alarmed. This includes Robert's childhood buddy Sam, who makes no bones about his view that black people "feel we owe them something"; Rajesh, an Indian immigrant who felt he had no obvious group to identify with, and having to choose to associate with the whites or the blacks, chose whites; and his Aunt Lisa, who bristles at the notion that there is still any racism in society. On Michelle's side, her BFF Sheila conjures all kinds of reasons for Michelle to back away and run, warning her the man must be married, still lives with his mama, or is into some weird sex thing. Her comeback to Michelle's announcement that she might go with Robert to his family cabin up north is priceless. Sheila's husband Karsen is worse, not even willing to talk to Robert when they meet.
In spite of these naysayers, Michelle and Robert draw closer and closer. At the start, Robert is blind to ways Michelle is subjected to racism on a daily basis, such as her inability to be seated at a posh restaurant, or her terror at being pulled over by the police for speeding. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is The Gazelle, a private club that caters to African Americans where Michelle feels free to totally be herselfbut does not want to bring Robert. Not just because she knows he will be unwelcome, but because she relishes a total break from a world that is dominated by white culture and white privilege, and that having Robert there, open-minded and well-meaning as he is, would change that dynamic. To Robert, The Gazelle represents reverse racism; to Michelle it is self-validation.
Lest this all sound pretty heavy-going, a great deal of humor runs through play, with very funny episodes shared by Robert and Michelle, like teaching each other to dancewhite folks dancing and black folks dancing, respectivelyand a running joke about sushi. Sam and Sheila each contribute a barrel of laugh lines as well. The Bengtsons have a good handle on writing dialogue that is authentic, both in its serious moments and when things turn breezy or even raucous. The step by step progress of their narrative rings true: after all, it is. They wisely chose to stop the play at a key decision point, not for us to guess how it all endswe already know thatbut how Robert and Michelle each process what a key juncture, what concessions each will make, and how they will embrace the fact that such junctures are likely to continue occurring throughout their lives together. The lead-up to that conclusion, with Sam fully revved in assault mode and ready for action, feels a bit much, but it brings welcome levity to an otherwise very sobering string of events.
Frequent collaborators E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage co-direct the play, keeping it well-paced and allowing its salient points to come organically out of the situations and dialogue, without marking them in yellow highlighter. They make good use of a clever stage set designed by Laura Vaillencourt and John Lutz, which places Robert's apartment on one side, Michelle's apartment on the other side, and a central dining area that is part of both domiciles, and also serves as restaurants and coffee shops where the characters face the social context of their differences in public. Claudia Errikson's lighting design adds subtle shifts in mood to each of these spaces.
Gabriele Angieri creates a strong profile as Robert: aggressively extroverted in a manner that can hint at being a cover for hidden insecurities. Thoughtful, affable, and witty, his perspective is obscured by the white privilege that he has benefitted from, but he does sincerely seem willing to see things more clearly. Pascha Fountain, making her Twin Cities theater debut, is a real find as Michelle. She conveys Michelle's inner strength that has allowed her to survive and thrive through hard times, but also the longing to lower her guard for someone who can be a true partner, so that she no longer has to go it all alone. Still, she will not compromise who she is or what she valuestruly a fully drawn portrait of a complex woman.
MadelineKarita Fleming is hilarious as Sheila, with a no-nonsense approach to life showing she will not suffer fools and is determined to keep her soul sister Michelle from suffering any. Rex Isom Jr. does fine work as Karsen, hot headed at first but eventually showing the ability to reason through a tense situationeven if his "reason" does not square up with Robert's "reason." Paul Economon is convincingly low-brow as Sam, gathering an arsenal of guns to be ready for "when it all goes down." He conveys a puppyish loyalty to Robert, in spite of the wide differences in their world views. Varghese Alexander is amusing as Rajesh, an immigrant himself who has found it convenient to shield himself from outsider status. As Aunt Lisa, reliable actor Laura Esping captures the scourge of prejudice and bigotry wrapped up in comforting assumptions and self-congratulatory statements of color-blindness. She sees herself as too good a person to perpetuate anything as untoward as racism.
There are a few small dramaturgical touches that slightly mar The Viking and the Gazelle: a statement made in one scene that is not followed up in the next, in order to make a joke; and a costuming choice that seems odd but is made in order to later present a "big reveal." Good joke, and the reveal is effective, but such playwrighting shortcuts trade the quality of its realism for a touch of sitcom.
In spite of small quibbles, The Viking and The Gazelle is a really good play, presenting the barriers between black and white people coming together in our society, loud and clear. The production is highly entertaining, with rich humor and strong performances throughout, but it is also a serious work that will most certainly prompt discussions long after the lights go down.
The Bengtsons formed The Waterfront Productions to launch their play in its first full run since premiering at the 2019 Minnesota Fringe, being staged at Mixed Blood Theatre. They have written about forging a marriage, but the play bears witness to the challenges inherent in just sitting together in a restaurant where one or the other is not customarily seen. There is a lot to take in, and it is all worth the taking.
The Viking and the Gazelle runs through December 15, 2019, presented by The Waterfront Productions, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00; For information and tickets go to www.thewaterfrontproductions.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Playwrights: Suzanne Bengtson and William P. Bengtson; Directors: E.G. Bailey and Sha Cage; Set Design: Laura Vaillencourt and John Lutz; Lighting Design: Claudia Errikson; Sound Design: Dameun Strange; Stage Manager: Jiccarra N. Hollman; Assistant Stage Manager: Atlese Robinson.
Cast: Varghese Alexander (Rajesh), Gabriele Angieri (Robert), Paul Economon (Sam), Laura Esping (Aunt Lisa), MadelineKarita Fleming (Sheila), Pascha Fountain (Michelle), Rex Isom Jr. (Karsen).