Theater » Theater Feature

White on Race

Theatre Memphis opens The Submission; New Moon visits Bountiful; Opera Memphis writes a love letter to Midtown.

by

comment

The Submission at Theatre Memphis is a beautifully mounted show directed by Jerry Chipman. The scenic design is simple and attractive, and the lighting is especially lush for small-stage realism. The costumes are subtle, and the acting ensemble is tight, with virtuosic turns by each of the show's four players. The script by actor-turned-writer Jeff Talbott practically plays itself, albeit with a self-awareness that flirts with narcissism. This story of a white man who writes a culturally risky play about black life in the projects and hires an African-American actress to be his minority front appears to say important things about identity politics in America. But c'mon, folks, it's just a screwball comedy built around a Mamet-esqe scam.

Talbott's play is proudly calculated. Like his play within the play, it's "so producible," because it only calls for four actors and a unit set. What's left obscured in all this meta business is just how well the playwright understands his predominantly white, middle-class audience, the demographic most likely to enjoy a de-victimizing play that takes nearly two hours to say what the puppet musical Avenue Q sums up in a single song: "Everyone's a little bit racist." Or bigoted. Or, to borrow from the play's own youthful vernacular, "Whatever."

Spoiler alert: The Submission will (predictably) climax with a white gay man calling a black straight woman the worst thing possible, and the black straight woman retaliates with a slur of her own. To that end, the play, like the play within the play, is an exercise in perversion, where audiences share responsibility for all the awful "things we're [all] capable of."

No matter how much we may wish it to be so, conversations about political correctness aren't conversations about race, gender orientation, etc. They just aren't. The real merits of The Submission stem from the fact that its pedestrian points are made with uncommon style. And no performer takes greater advantage of the play's style than Kinon Kiplinger, who storms offstage to shout a brilliantly funny monologue to warm the cockles of every "fucktarded theater critic's" heart.

Gabe Beutel-Gunn and Jessica Johnson have great chemistry as author and front, and Evan McCarley charms as the play's token swell guy who happens to be straight and white.

Through April 19th

New Moon is producing Horton Foote's The Trip to Bountiful at TheatreWorks. This small play with epic intentions tells the story of Carrie Watts, an elderly woman living in Houston with her struggling son and his prattling wife. She needs to return to Bountiful, Texas, her hometown, just one last time before she dies to see her old house on the banks of the Brazos River, smell the brackish gulf air, and listen to the sound of the mockingbirds. But she's been made a near prisoner in her son's home and is forced to sneak out and go on the lam. The drama provided by an ensuing chase carries with it a meditation on the effects of time on life and the American landscape.

Sylvia Barringer Wilson makes Carrie a soft-spoken spitfire, and the play is at its best when she leads the audience to wonder if Bountiful is a real place, or an invention of subtle dementia. She may even be a little too soft-spoken at times, in a nearly cinematic performance that's done no favors by a lighting design de-emphasizing the intimacy of TheatreWorks.

Minimal scenic design effectively places the action between rows of telephone poles, saying just about everything that needs to be said about distance and communication.

Through April 13th

Opera Memphis' second annual Midtown Opera Festival got off to a fantastic start as 300 people gathered in front of the Sears Crosstown's loading dock for a bouquet of operas and monologues about all the life that's happened in the long-abandoned building. I missed opening night but caught the dress rehearsal and was impressed by how vividly the words of Memphis playwright Jerre Dye were brought to life by the singers.

For night two, the opera moved indoors at Playhouse on the Square for a pair of minimally produced comedies yielding maximum joy. Mozart's The Impresario, a parody of dueling divas and Richard Wargo's The Music Shop, a too-familiar farce about a man who can't remember what his wife sent him to buy, were nicely sung, with gags galore. The festival continues this week.

Midtown Opera Festival is at Playhouse on the Square through April 12th.

Add a comment