Academic journal article African American Review

Simon Wasn't There: The Sambo Strategy, Consumable Theater, and Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter

Academic journal article African American Review

Simon Wasn't There: The Sambo Strategy, Consumable Theater, and Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter

Article excerpt

When Spinning into Butter debuted at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1999, Rebecca Gilman was transformed, in the words of Chris Jones, from a struggling writer into "one of America's most talked-about and sought-after playwrights" (26). The positive response from critics and audiences extended the play's run at the Goodman three times, and its provocative treatment of hot-button political and social issues within the context of academia--a treatment that inspires comparisons to Mamet's Oleanna (which, seven years earlier, also debuted at the Goodman)--garnered heated responses. (1) According to Joanne Kaufman, "Audiences tended to see it as a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to talk honestly about race" (39). (2) And talk they did. People began sticking around after the play to discuss the issues explored on stage.

In an early review, Chris Jones, writing for American Theatre, predicted that because of the enthusiastic interest from regional theaters, "the play is likely to show up on this magazine's next annual list of the most-produced plays of the season" (27). He was right, and after appearing at Lincoln Center and the Royal Court Theatre, Spinning into Butter was eventually identified as the third most-produced play of the 2000-2001 season ("The Season's" 86). Time also named it one of the best plays of 1999, which was followed by more accolades for Gilman, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Prince Prize for Commissioning New Work, the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and the George Devine Award. In addition, Gilman became the first American to win the London Evening Standard Award for most promising playwright, and her play The Glory of Living was a finalist for the Pulitzer. The commercial and critical success of Spinning into Butter stems, in part, from its shockingly controversial treatment of racism. At Belmont, a mostly-white liberal arts college in Vermont, an African American student named Simon Brick begins receiving hateful, racist notes. The Belmont administrators--who are all white--scramble to protect their institution from scandal and to flaunt their liberal credentials. The one exception is Sarah Daniels, a dean who, in the most-discussed scene of the play, shocks her colleagues by revealing in no uncertain terms her less-than-latent racism. The play is complicated further when authorities discover that Simon has been sending these notes to himself.

As Richard Zoglin comments, Gilman has a tendency to "grasp at big ideas" (132), an observation borne out by the subject material of some of her other plays: The Glory of Living (2001) presents a young mother who tries to please her husband by brutally murdering runaways and hitchhikers; Boy Gets Girl (2000) examines violence and power in gender relations; and Blue Surge (2001) is to class what Spinning into Butter is to race. "Miss Gilman," notes Mark Steyn, "likes 'issue' plays" (38). Yet because of Spinning's uniquely scandalous presentation of the racism lurking in a New England ivory tower, readers and spectators may fail to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of Gilman's critique of institutional power, a critique much more far reaching than most reviews acknowledge. In fact, once one gets past Sarah's startling speech, one might be tempted, as is Jonathan Kalb, to see the play as "seeming essentially obvious." But instead of merely presenting a wayward white liberal who, in the unveiling of her own racism, critiques the hollow political correctness of her colleagues, Spinning into Butter portrays what amounts to a multi-layered "theater of consumption." This term derives from the title of Gilman's play, which itself alludes to the well-known story of Sambo. When threatened by hungry tigers, Sambo restages the scene to neutralize the threat and eventually eats the tigers who have spun themselves into butter. Likewise, Gilman's characters create--with varying degrees of success--theaters of consumption in which they transform that which threatens their positions of academic and cultural power into that which they can consume. …

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