The long-anticipated opening of Bag & Baggage’s new performance space is finally here, and it was definitely worth the wait. Artistic Director Scott Palmer’s choice to present Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter for the inaugural show is truly inspired. The theater company’s motto: “Real. Provocative. Theatre.” takes on new shades of meaning when an overwhelmingly white, upper middle class audience spends 2+ hours watching a play about white people who are grappling with racism without actually interacting with any people of color. Capitalizing on the flexibility of the company’s new space (btw, The Vault is awesome!), the production is done as theatre in the round, which drives home even more powerfully the ethnic homogeneity of the audience – while watching the play, each of the four sections can simultaneously observe the faces of 75% of the people in the room.
The title Spinning Into Butter refers to the long verboten The Story of Little Black Sambo. Set in a fictional small liberal arts college in Vermont, the play explores the campus community’s extremely tone-deaf response when Simon, one of the few African-American students on campus, receives a series of overtly racist anonymous letters. The reactions of Dean of Students Sarah Daniels, three other faculty/administrators, and a self-absorbed pre-law student reveal the self-delusion and hypocrisy of a pretentiously liberal academic elite; the well-grounded blue-collar campus cop provides the only voice of genuine compassion and sanity. As Dean Daniels explores (and ultimately reveals in a wonderful monologue) her almost-invisible but deeply rooted racism, we eventually see that her ardent if somewhat misguided efforts to provide scholarship support to talented Nuyorican (look it up!) student Patrick Chibas are her way of compensating. Few people in the opening night audience could honestly deny sharing some of Daniels’ thoughts – the production lives up to the “Provocative“ challenge by forcing us to confront this truth about ourselves and our neighbors. Despite the weighty topics, the show is neither preachy, didactic, nor humorless – in fact, it is often quite funny, and consistently engaging and entertaining.
Kymberli Colbourne’s “Sarah Daniels” carries the message, weight, and charm of the show on her shoulders, and she does it flawlessly. In a play laden with sometimes narrow stereotypes, she is utterly authentic and as multidimensional as only a real, conflicted character can be. Whether she is defiantly sharing her contempt for Toni Morrison’s work, explaining in detail her criteria for selecting her seatmates on public transit, or railing against idealization as just another form of condescension, she elegantly expresses facets of our society’s tortured relationship to race and political correctness. The other fully realized character is Andrew Beck, as Sarah’s lover “Ross.” Beck evolves from a one-dimensional, hypocritical, bombastic liberal into an actual human capable of offering real understanding (both to Sarah, and about the situation) in place of knee-jerk platitudes.
The audience’s ability to empathize with Sarah is bolstered by two other key characters, Peter Schuyler (as the almost-unbelievably self-righteous Professor Patrick Strauss) and Morgan Cox (as Dean Catherine Kenney, the poster child for connivingly pragmatic administrators). Rusty Tennant (as cop Mr. Meyers) fills a completely different role – that of the (idealized, but still somewhat believable) good-hearted blue-collar guy who’s naturally superior to the faculty elite. Tennant manages in a few lines about a bathroom soap dispenser to convey a glimpse of hope for a post-racial society, and he delivers the lines so casually that we only realize upon reflection what we have heard. The two students in the play, Nuyorican Patrick Chibas (Carlos-Zenen Trujillo) and pre-law WASP Greg Sullivan (Phillip J. Berns) also offer a ray of hope; not yet fully cooked, they subtly offer a potential for incremental change.
The set consists only of a door, one long conference table, an easy chair and a bookcase – all that is necessary to allow the actors to tell the story in a way that offers fair vantage points to the entire audience, although some tenants of south wall seating are unable to see the activity at the door. Palmer moves his actors around constantly, and the realism of watching the cast actually speaking to each other, rather than cheating to face the audience, more than compensates for any temporarily impaired sightlines. The Vault is more of a performance space than a classic theater, and Spinning Into Butter illustrates just one of the many ways that the flexibility of Hillsboro’s newest stage can enrich the community.
Spinning Into Butter is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through Sunday, September 24 with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The performance on Thursday, September 14 is “pay what you will.”