Nobody paying any attention could honestly say could that they thought 2014 was a good year for race relations in America. Unarmed, black, men were repeatedly killed by policeman with what began to seem like absolute impunity. Some media outlets directly responded by covering unrelated issues, such as affirmative action, in ways that were sensational and seemed aimed at producing further racial animus. However, even narratives that tried to discover the structural causes of institutionalized racism seemed to some divisive and unhelpful. Therefore, Eclectic Theatre Company’s decision to open 2014 with Rebecca Gillman 1999 play “Spinning into Butter” about racist acts and how we respond to them and talk about racism is both brave and topical.
Sarah Daniels (Jessica Lauren Fisher) is the Dean of Students at an elite, private, university in Vermont (think a combination of small and ivy-league). She is genuinely concerned with welfare of her students, and in the first scene, secures a 10,000 dollar scholarship for Patrick Chibas (Rolo Rodriguez), a student of color, once she persuades him to allow her to refer to him as “Hispanic” instead of “Nuyerican,” when making her recommendation to the board, despite appreciating the historical and cultural difference between the two labels. Ms. Fisher’s Sarah Daniel rightly remains front and center through the whole play. She portrays the character with a fierce intelligence that is cultural, intellectual, and emotional, and relates to all the students under her charge, and even to her impoverished, fundamentalist, alcoholic family, with great empathy and humanity On a personal level, we watch her colleague Dr. Ross Collins (Patrick Iven), an art professor, break up with her. He explains that he omitted the fact that he was in an open relationship with another professor called Petra who was on Sabbatical during the previous term but has now returned. In response, she reads the definition of “equivocation” aloud to him from a Meriam-Webster Dictionary. Mr. Iven is so miserable and discouraged as Dr. Collins that we can only feel bad for him, and after what he did to Sara for whom he is no match in their sparring, that is not an easy feat.
But Iven’s ability to accomplish it is important for the production’s success because he and Sarah will be pitted against the much less human characters in the administration as they explore their relationship to people of color. Certainly Ross deserved the first reproach from Sarah, but as they try and renegotiate their relationship as platonic, her attacks begin to seem excessively harsh and punitive. It finally becomes clear what is happening when he mentions seeing the same man twice in a year on the train in New York City, and says that both the man and his elegant clothing looked like they were about disintegrate, but that he held a prayer card in front of him with John 12:24 written across it “as though this man held himself together by a singular devotion to God, but a devotion so fragile” that he had to keep this prayer card in front of him at all times. She responds that he is denigrating the man by idealizing him, and complains that he did the same thing to her, treating her as a subject in a painting to be studied. She tells him that to idealize someone is to mark them as fundamentally different and therefore not equal, it is not to respect, and complains that you “can either denigrate or idealize” and that either way it is not to respect.
She becomes so adamant on this point and so upset that Ross asks her what is going on, and she comes clean about a complex relationship with people of color which veered from paternalistic growing up, to extreme but entirely egocentric (she felt) white guilt in graduate school, and finally manifest denigration and racism when she lived and worked with African-Americans in Chicago. She feels that she has failed Patrick by she idealizing him. She explains that she thought “he was going to solve the red tide” without knowing anything about him. It’s as though idealization was her last tool against which she felt was an intrinsic racism so that she becomes the one about to disintegrate, and disintegrate she does. For driving this confession, is the fact that Simon Brick, one of the view African American students at Belmont, is receiving racist notes, and Sarah’s colleagues, Dean Strauss and Dean Kenney (foils to Ross and Sarah, they are estranged lovers and close friends and are played deliciously as straight up caricatures by David Belew and Lisa Savegnago respectively, highlighting Sarah and Ross’s complexity). They tell her to come up with a bullited list to end racism on campus after their attempts to initiate a dialogue fail (Dean Strauss ends up offending everyone, patronizing students of color and accusing the white ones of racism).
Mr. Belew is particularly absurd (in a good way) as Dean Strauss and provides some much needed comic relief, especially during the plays brutal ending, when he tells the eponymous fable of “Little Black Sambo.” However, I think it would have been fascinating if he had occasional moments of vulnerability: when he talked to Sarah about his mother, for example, or when he mentions his sensitivity to rejection. That said, I understood both his and director’s (Andrew Pond) choices to avoid distraction from the play’s main narrative. The play ends in disaster, and only when Simon, the student receiving the racist threats is expelled and Sarah forced resign (after a series of professional and psychological crises that collapse into one another and are portrayed with extreme realism, energy, tragedy, and pain by Miss Fisher), does any real human interaction, stripped of racial awareness begin, partially initiated by the guidance of Mr. Meyers (David Elliott): a kindly security guard whose paternalistic aura seems appropriate to his job, but which further complicates the play’s message about the discourses surrounding racism which seems acknowledge the power of theoretical arguments about it origins of racism, but also to insist that The lighting is technically sophisticated (Claire Chrzan) and sometimes used theatrically to increase drama: a rare choice, but one I like.
The set (Zoe Mikel-Stites) works as an Ivy league Dean’s office: to make it really convincing would require a very large budget. Please note that this production is rated PG-13 and should not be attended by children.Running time is 2 hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.“Spinning into Butter” is running through February 8th 2015 at The Anatheum Theatre, Studio 2, located at 2396 N. Southport Avenue. Performances are Thursday , Fridays and Saturday’s at 8 PM and Sundays at 2 PM . Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 773-935-6875 or 312–902-1500 or online at www.ovationtix.com. To learn more about this theater company, visit www.eclectic-theatre.com.
To see what others are saying, and in this particular case, there are many opinions, visitwww.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Spinning Into Butter”