Black and White Ball the Theatre

By Als, Hilton | The New Yorker, June 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

Black and White Ball the Theatre


Als, Hilton, The New Yorker


About thirty minutes into Joy Gregory and David Schwimmer's adaptation of Studs Terkel's 1992 oral history "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession" (a Lookingglass Theatre Company premiere at the Water Tower Water Works, in Chicago), the moral heaviness of the production lifts for a moment, and we're given a glimpse of the errant form of humor that could have catapulted the show past the confines of theatre-as-sociology. In one of the skits into which the evening is divided, the maniacally upbeat host (Andrew White) of a game show called "Name That Stereotype," who wears his cheesiness as proudly as his loud blue-and-white jacket, introduces three contestants--a black man (Cedric Young), an Asian woman (Cheryl Hamada), and a white woman (Corryn Cummins)--who compete in a kind of race raffle by acting out our most unattractive preconceptions. First up, playing "white trash," is the gifted Cummins, whose comic ability is perfectly balanced by her lyrical humanism. She becomes a living embodiment of urban blight: a drug freak working a welfare scam who cares little, if at all, for her fellow-man. Just as we can almost picture her dirty trailer littered with beer cans and food stamps, a bell goes off, "Jeopardy" style, and she is followed by Young playing a watermelon-and-pig-foot-eating Stepin Fetchit ("I'll be happy to be your token darkie--why, heck, y'all can even put me on the Supreme Court if'n you want, so's y'all won't have to make any real changes. Dat'd be fine by me"), and then by Hamada's compliant geisha ("My name is Spicy Tuna but you can call me Lotus Blossom"). In her alluring red kimono, she giggles, eyes downcast, takes tiny pigeon steps across the stage to a white male audience member, bows, and starts to massage his feet. When she suspects that he's unsatisfied with her services, she becomes hysterical and commits hara-kiri. Better death than the dishonor of serving badly. The scene leaves us with questions, which unfortunately the rest of the show fails to answer: Where did these caricatures come from? How have racial stereotypes been promoted in our culture over the years? To what extent have we passively accepted them? How parochial are we? How naive?

Satire assumes a common experience on the part of its audience--as well as common limitations. The urge to gnaw away at those limitations is what made the standup comedians Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor philosophers of a sort. Neither set out to dissect the role of racism in our national consciousness, but each, in his own way, exposed bigotry. Schwimmer--who was one of the founders of the Lookingglass, and who directed the show and also stars in the television series "Friends"--borrows liberally from the conventions of standup comedy, as well as from sitcoms, Lily Tomlin's one-woman performances, and the playwright George C. Wolfe's unforgettable comedic treatise on race, "The Colored Museum." Schwimmer has produced a tight and entertaining show, but one whose technique is more sophisticated than its content, and whose didacticism comes off less as critical analysis than as a plea for the liberal cause.

The show opens in the dark to the swampy sounds of crickets chirping and water gurgling. As the lights come up, a commanding black woman in an old overcoat (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) circles the stage. She is Mamie Till Mobley, and she is telling the story of her fourteen-year-old son, Emmett Till, who was shot, beaten, and dumped in a swamp while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, in 1955. Till was accused of whistling at a white woman. The charge may have been apocryphal, but the "justice" it engendered was not--his white assailants were acquitted after jurors deliberated for just over an hour. Defiant, Mrs. Mobley insisted that her son's battered and bloated body be shipped home to Chicago and openly displayed at his funeral, so that America could witness the real face of racism. This story--or, rather, the way it is played here--is instructive. …

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