Blurring Black and White

Too much talk makes Spinning Into Butter lose its focus on racism.

It caused me to spend a restless night thinking about the apparently intractable problems of race relations in America, so I have to assume Spinning Into Butter succeeds as a play on some level. On the other hand, I found large chunks of playwright Rebecca Gilman's dialogue intensely irritating -- sometimes obvious, sometimes obtuse, sometimes self-congratulatory. In the final analysis, the play seemed to retreat from the hard-edged issues it initially raised into a kind of orgy of personal soul-searching -- certainly by the protagonist, and perhaps by the author, too.

The play is set in a small liberal-arts college in Vermont. Dean Sarah Daniels, played by Annette Helde, is talking to Patrick Chibas (an excellent Rodney Lizcano), suggesting he apply for a minority scholarship. On college forms, he's listed his race as "other." The dean asks how she should describe him on the scholarship application. "Nuyorican," Chibas responds. Daniels is taken aback: That won't fly. How about "Hispanic"? How about "Latino"? Dean and student are clearly traversing a minefield here. She shouldn't use the word "minority," Chibas tells Daniels; the correct term is "student of color." She apologizes abjectly. But it's a $12,000 scholarship, so ultimately Chibas agrees to "Latino."

Then a black student starts receiving violently threatening notes. After a few moments of utter horror, and ignoring Daniels's suggestion that they ask the affected student what he wants, faculty members plan a forum to discuss racial issues. Most of these people -- art-history professor Russ Collins (Jamie Horton), Dean of Humanities Burton Strauss (Greg Thornton) and Academic Dean Catherine Kenney (Kathleen M. Brady) -- are caricatures. Still, they're recognizable and cleverly drawn, and in this production, they're given real heft and presence by a group of first-rate actors. As Strauss, who preens and puts forward one fatuous suggestion after another, Thornton has a marvelously insinuating way of angling his chin. Jamie Horton gives art professor Collins a comfortable, pedantically chuckling demeanor. Kathleen Brady adds an intelligent solidity to Dean Kenney's scripted vanity and weakness.

Jamie Horton and Annette Helde star in the DCTC's Spinning Into Butter.
Jamie Horton and Annette Helde star in the DCTC's Spinning Into Butter.

These are the people who are spinning themselves into butter, and their actions and interactions are not only very funny, they're also a dead-on accurate satire of academic liberalism -- which can be well-meaning, but is too often blind, self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing. It doesn't take long for an ambitious student (played with a cheery and delicious vacuousness by John Sloan) to realize that founding a group called Students for Tolerance will look very good on his law-school application. Meanwhile, Daniels agonizes. Since she's also been dumped by Collins -- who then comes to her with complaints about his current lover -- she has plenty to agonize about. But she also has moments of striking irony and insight, and she's capable of saying things that no one else will say. Annette Helde's performance is a model of intelligent lucidity, coupled with deep and genuine feeling.

So far, so good. In terms of both writing and the Denver Center Theatre Company's performances, the first act is a delight.

It's in the second act that the playwright seems to lose direction. The affair between Daniels and Collins evaporates. The threatened student never appears. Gilman has said in interviews that she made this decision because if he did, given the tendency of whites to stereotype, the student would be seen as a spokesman for his race. But because he is absent and we will never know what he feels or what fuels his actions, the focus remains solely on the university administration. Sarah Daniels gives a long, emotional speech about her feelings on race, and the theme of the play shifts: Now it's about the struggle within Daniels's soul. Before coming to Vermont, she worked at a predominantly black college, and she describes her ambivalence toward the students there. Sure, she developed friendships; there were people she liked. But there were others she found threatening, scary or distasteful. Occasionally, nasty thoughts about blacks intruded, and she wished passionately that it were otherwise. She studied black literature and culture, but that led to objectification rather than self-exoneration: "All I learned was how to appreciate black people, the way you might appreciate a painting or a good bottle of Bordeaux."

Until that point, the play had seemed judiciously balanced. Daniels might have been obtuse in the scene with Chibas, but he was also annoyingly self-righteous. Now the tone seems to change: Ex-lover Collins accepts Daniels's self-definition as a racist and pelts her with liberal arguments. Does Gilman intend us to see him as a hypocrite (not to mention a liar in love), or does he speak for her? Sometimes this scene feels as though the playwright is conducting a dialogue between two sides of her own soul. Later, the campus security officer (played with quiet force by Mark Rubald) will reproach Daniels, too.

But does she really deserve all this punishment? Whatever secret thoughts she harbors, she's devoted much of her life to social justice. She's made a sincere attempt to help a deserving minority student get a scholarship. Is there a white person in America who's never had the kind of thoughts she describes? Is there a black person who's never made derogatory comments about whites? (I seem to remember Malcolm X carrying on at length -- to rapturous laughter -- about the disagreeable pastiness of white skin. And why not?) Yes, I know that mockery by an oppressed people is not the moral equivalent of mockery by the oppressor (though the word "oppression" is also infinitely arguable), but, still...

Perhaps paradoxically, the more Daniels castigates herself, the more self-centered the play seems. Something terrible involving a black kid has happened, but it's the distress of white adults that's center stage. Racism may be personal and psychological, but it's also structural. True, if every racist in America underwent a change of heart, the lives of black people would greatly improve. And if humankind could perfect itself, there wouldn't be any wars. But in an imperfect world, the solution for whites may lie less in examining our own psyches and more in searching out legal, institutional and economic solutions. The most painstaking act of navel-gazing won't put food on anyone's table or get the kids to the doctor. And loathing Toni Morrison is really no more a sin than loathing John Updike.

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