Play at UF explores the world of subtle racism
Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 10:30 p.m.
Play begins Thursday
Such a ugly word. Certainly not a word most of us would attach to ourselves. No, racists are other people . . . people with shaved heads and swastikas tattooed to their arms.
Yet, is racism always so extreme, so obvious? Could it not be hidden in the subtle actions and thoughts that we've diligently buried beneath our otherwise progressive, liberal demeanors?
These are the questions Rebecca Gilman wants each audience member to answer individually in her two-act play, "Spinning into Butter."
On stage at the Constans Theatre Black Box Thursday through Sunday, the play tells the story of how a group of college administrators at a small Vermont college attempts to deal with a racial crisis that is ignited when the first in a series of racist letters is left at the door of black student Simon Brick's dorm room.
Using a group of educated, upper-class white administrators in a small, mostly white town, Gillman stresses how even the most well-read among us miss the point when confronted with racial tensions.
By play's end, the audience is aware that the playwright is challenging them to put down their sociology texts, pretend like they have never heard the term "politically correct," admit their shortcomings, and, simply, listen.
From beginning to end, the audience watches as Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, the main character played by Robin Thomas, goes through this process as she struggles with herself to determine how to solve the racial tensions within herself.
The audience will inevitably cheer for Daniels, the most sensitive of the characters, who is heartbroken in the first scene, then inadvertently offends a student as she tries to help him get a minority scholarship and then futilely pleads with her colleagues to respect Simon's privacy before they publicly denounce the racist letters he received.
The play takes place in Daniels' office, where administrators design their public-relations-style tactics to protect their image.
These well-intentioned tactics fail, and do more harm than good - the more the administrators try to quell the flames, the more their own prejudices are revealed, mostly because they do not listen to the students' needs.
In the play, Daniels stands out among her colleagues as the only one concerned with what is best for the students. While other faculty members are boasting about an on-campus forum that will let them publicly condemn racism, Daniels believes they should see how Simon wants the situation handled.
Ironically, the audience never meets Simon, the only black character introduced throughout the play, in part because the faculty loses sight of how the letters are about him and not themselves. As a result, Simon never appears in Daniels' office.
While the lack of a black character may seem strange for a play about racism, in fact, Gilman's play is about white's prejudice. And, she chose not just average white people, but rather white people who consider themselves intellectual, liberal and far from the narrow-minded thinking of racists.
Director David Young, also a graduate research professor in the University of Florida's department of theater and dance, explains that Gilman may have chosen to leave black characters out of the play because she wanted the focus of the play to be on how whites do not realize their subtle prejudices.
"If you want to write a play about prejudice, and you are trying to show how white people react, you don't want black characters. They already know about prejudice," Young said.
The play's overriding emotion is an uncomfortable tension that results from the underlying questions Gilman asks the audience. Could I really be racist? And, in what subtle ways do I act on these racist thoughts in everyday life?
This tension is heightened during a scene toward the end of the play when Daniels begins to reveal truths about her feelings about black people.
The audience's heroine, its pillar of hope, the only liaison to the minority students has racist thoughts and feelings herself.
She opens up to her former lover and co-worker Dr. Ross Collins about honestly hating Toni Morrison, the acclaimed black female author of "Beloved," and how she avoids black men on the bus.
"It slipped my mind to feel bad about it. I knew it was wrong, but I just didn't care," she proclaims.
What is more shocking than Daniels' words are perhaps how much the audience might relate to what she is saying.
Collins reassures Daniels, only after at first calling her awful, by telling her, "Most people are racists, they just don't know they are racist."
This is the point Young hopes the audience will take away from the play.
"(Gilman) doesn't give any easy answers. You have to figure it out for yourself. . . . I think she's asking the audience to judge themselves, to make their own decision about whether they have some involuntary prejudice," Young says.
"There is subtle racial prejudice that most people don't even know about," Young continues. "That's why I like the play, because it's not afraid to explore that."
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