Crib’s a promising new basketball drama. 

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If you're paying attention to contemporary critical race theory, you may experience a few cringeworthy moments in Gino DiIorio’s promising new play Crib. I mean, it's possible that an African-American academic about to publish a book called Black on Blackface might not be familiar with the concept of "racecraft," the confounding rhetorical trick identifying race as the root trigger for racism, rather than artificial distinctions projected by racists. But placing a line like, "Some of the most racist people I know are black," in the mouth of an apparently "woke" African-American college professor rings false while it perpetuates both the concept of race and the frustrating notion that racism can be a "both sides" issue. It also reveals a hidden, probably unintentional theme running through this Playhouse on the Square New Works @TheWorks winner — all lives matter.

Crib introduces us to Tracy, an African-American professor fighting an evidently biased system for tenure. Administrators who can't be bothered to remember the name of her book have Tracy's phone number on speed dial so she can be invited to photo shoots when the college wants to show off how diverse it is placing the theater prof in a metaphoric position. She knows she'll be called on the carpet and probably denied tenure if she doesn't follow the the college's rules to the letter. She knows she'll be fired for sure if she doesn't ignore the rules and go-along-to-get-along.

Rajon is the school's star basketball player. He's been accused of plagiarism ("the big crib") and threatened with expulsion. That's when coach Coach Pari — a possible allusion to former U of M Coach John Calapari — steps in to protect his star player and to remind everybody that athletic money trumps academic honor. Or any kind of honor, really. What follows is a series of power plays that double as a lively debate over whether or not college sports is an exploitative system or the most honest distillation of a much bigger and even more exploitive system.

"I make the research grants possible," he says in a manner both mansplanatory and triumphant.

John Maness has been having a great run of late. The seasoned and versatile actor's always been a favorite but, from The Flick to All Saints in the Old Colony, to his blood and guts performance here as Coach Pari in Crib, Maness has turned in one fully committed performance after another. Here he's alternately thuggish and affable — a contemporary type where the functional "bad guy" is also "good people." We watch him manipulate people cruelly to his advantage to gain "the W," but we also see him in vulnerable moments, literally holding his player's hand through a rough patch. To that end, Coach Pari has been given more emotional range and dimension than the female lead who, while imbued with quiet strength and intelligence, is sometimes given to "girls' night out" hijinks, and placed in circumstances where she can never quite become the hero of her own story. Nevertheless, as Tracy, Lisa Williams brings a powerful, lightly worn confidence to the table.

Kim Sanders is POTS's MVP. She's a song and dance champ with comedy and drama chops to match and never anything shy of solid. The same's true here as Lisa, Tracy's administrative assistant and confidant. As Rajon, Roman Kalei Kyle is a fidgeting tangle of raw energy. It's a terrific performance, in spite of some awkwardly choreographed ball-handling, and a tendency to telegraph certain pieces of information way too soon.

A question the playwright seems to anticipate but never fully accounts for is whether or not a play by a white author that's so rooted in issues of African-American identity becomes a kind of blackface. There are moments ("Some of the biggest racists ..." for example) when it comes awfully close. But, in spite of initial appearances, Crib is less about race and gender than a critique of liberal academia and the under-examined hegemony of American sports culture. It's especially fascinating in Memphis, a city that's benefited from pro basketball at the cost of a "no compete" clause, shutting out opportunities to book venues of scale. More than they celebrate human achievement or culture or civic pride or anything else, these kinds of sports stories remind us that no color matters like green.

Crib is at TheatreWorks through July 29th. playhouseonthesquare.org

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