When Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, a play confronting the slippery nature of racism in America, moved from Chicago's Goodman Theatre to New York, it found a slavering crowd of reasonably hostile critics waiting to shred it. Nobody wanted to come right out and say that the playwright was wrong in her assumptions or that the piece was poorly written, but almost everyone wanted to show how the play was overly simple: a primer for the few unfortunates among us who have never really stared down our secret demons and seriously considered the issue of racism before.
And while it's hard to deny that the piece makes for a superb introduction to the ugly issue, I strongly disagree with anyone who claims that it is simplistic. In fact, Spinning Into Butter is a complex, courageous work by a writer who is not afraid to take huge political risks. And while it may not address even a single issue that has not crossed the mind (if not the actual lips) of your average East Coast critic, it makes all of these private ideas public and accessible. Running the gamut from genuinely entertaining to genuinely shocking, Gilman's play gets to the heart of the matter and beyond as she explores not so much the roots of racism as the root system. We are never confronted with simple solutions or solutions of any kind, for that matter. We are only shown how this evil proliferates and grows wild even in the most liberal circles and how it ultimately corrupts even those who seem to be far above the petty prejudices that lead to discrimination. It also shows how the politically correct school of thought has created an environment in which even heartfelt efforts to level a racially divided playing field have created a killing field laden with deadly linguistic traps.
Though, like any good farce, Spinning Into Butter twists and turns like a country road, the premise is fairly simple. An African-American student at a highfalutin, predominantly white East Coast college has been receiving threatening letters. The faculty rushes willy-nilly to turn this horror into a "meaningful learning experience" by creating a series of "race forums." In actuality, these forums are just an exercise in vanity and an opportunity for various faculty members to congratulate themselves for being so very progressive.
Only one of the deans, Sarah, a white, razor-witted Midwesterner and avid student of African-American culture, understands how utterly useless and potentially offensive these forums are. She also knows that, regardless of intent, her own motivations are the product of guilt and ultimately racist in nature. She admits that, try as she might to walk an enlightened path and make the world a better place, she finds many black people to be rude, loud, ignorant, lazy, and terrifying. She knows that it's wrong to judge an entire race based on the actions of a few and that her feelings, like those of the scary, undereducated people she won't sit by on the subway, are the result of a failed system. She desperately wants to exorcise these feelings but doesn't know where to begin. Her admissions, which are entirely at odds with her public record, are rewarded with nothing but contempt by foolish academics who seek catharsis in the creation of empty gestures and the general proclamation that hate is bad. To say much more, to even attempt to give this play the critical workout it deserves, would give away too many of the vital plot elements that make it so very rich and compelling.
Director Bob Hetherington has assembled a top-notch cast, including Brent Lowder, John Moore, S.A. Weakley, Ann Sharp, John Rone, and Jordan Nichols. In the midst of so much general excellence, Anne Dauber still manages to stand out as the conflicted Sarah, finding humor even in her darkest moments. It's the sort of performance that makes even a devout non-hugger like myself want to rush backstage to squeeze the daylights out of the actor while shouting, "Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Usually, I'm quick to take issue with plays that take on hot-button issues. All too often, they are precious attempts to generate some sort of sympathetic magic, and the playwright hopes the "importance" of the issues addressed will imbue his or her work with an equal degree of importance. They are windy affairs, predictable and full of high-minded platitudes offered up to an ultraliberated crowd that has, presumably, already seen the light. Spinning Into Butter is aimed at this same liberated crowd, but instead of confirming their convictions, it challenges them. Or, given the tepid New York reviews, perhaps it even threatens them. Using the numerous, nearly slapstick plot devices, it accomplishes all of this at breakneck pace with an abundance of humor. Spinning Into Butter is not only a textbook example of how to create good, politically charged theater, it is an excellent example of just how exciting the form can be. It's the sort of show that you'll still be talking about months after it has closed.
Through May 26th.