Spinning into Butter review: white noise

Brett Campbell, Oregon Arts Watch

"But the big triumph is Colbourne’s sensitive portrayal of Daniels, whose inconsistently scripted character makes Colbourne‘s powerful performance all the more impressive."

-Brett Campbell, Oregon Arts Watch

Bag & Baggage Productions’ season opener should spark needed conversations about race

“It is a play,” writes Bag & Baggage Productions Artistic Director Scott Palmer in the program notes, “that deals with well-meaning, liberally minded, white people dealing with issues of racism in a way that I think is hugely relevant to me personally and to the community of Hillsboro.”

I’d go further: Spinning into Butter, playing through September 24 at Bag & Baggage’s cool, cozy new home The Vault, is a production that should be seen by anyone in the greater Portland community who’s at all interested in one of the most pressing issues of our time and place. Especially if you’re willing to set your own preconceptions aside for a couple hours.

Carlos Trujillo and Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

To say it’s important is not to say it’s a great play, though. Dramatically flawed and somewhat dated, Spinning may be more important for the conversations it sparks than what happens onstage. However, one thing that actually does happen onstage — Kymberli Colbourne’s fully realized, yet understated leading performance — should also start a conversation, about the best performance on a Portland stage in this young theater season.

While the title comes from the racist 1899 children’s book Little Black Sambo, cited late in the play, the story sprang from an incident that actually happened in the early 1980s at a small, private, progressive, overwhelmingly white college that white Alabama-born playwright Gilman attended in an overwhelmingly white state (Vermont). If that sounds a lot like present-day Oregon, well, that’s no accident.

Dean of students Sarah Daniels must confront a series of racist incidents that appear to threaten not only one of the few students of color but also the white faculty’s misguided sense of their own enlightenment. As threatening incidents and floundering responses mount, the revelation that turns out to be most important isn’t the identity of the culprit, but rather the academy’s self-deceptiveness — including Daniels’s own shortcomings. She’s trying desperately hard to do the right thing, including finally facing her own residual racism, and therefore must ultimately be punished for it by her less-honest colleagues.

Ivory Tower

Although it purports to be about racial politics, Spinning into Butter’s most obvious target — and it’s an easy one, much lampooned on page, stage and screen  — is ivory tower academia’s toxic combination of high mindedness and low behavior (and stakes). Here, we get who’s sleeping with whom, petty power struggles, sexism, mansplaining, a canned 10-point plan to immediately solve racism, politically correct posturing and a plenitude of platitudes the self-important faculty and administrators cower behind to avoid confronting their own white privilege.

Academics square off in The Vault in ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

The play’s central irony skewers white people seemingly trying to do the right thing but, because of their unawareness of their own unintentional racist perspective and their failure to meaningfully involve or even listen to the voices of the black people at the center, screwing it up. Their bureaucratic cluelessness is compounded by hypersensitivity and fear of giving offense that prevents them from acknowledging what Gilman believes is their own repressed rage and racism. Except for Daniels, administrators’ response to the racist attacks is more about protecting their reputation, padding their resumes and asserting their own liberal bona fides than about actually helping the affected student. It’s all about them.

Naturally, their academic airiness is counterbalanced by an equally stereotyped, idealized campus security officer, who laconically dispenses down-to-earth, Common People perspective on their pomposity — until the end, when he briefly mounts his own figurative podium.

Most of these stereotypical characters are pretty dislikable, and it’s to the B&B team’s credit that most are worth watching, even if it’s just as mouthpieces Gilman’s sharp, often funny, though often glib dialogue.

Unconvincing Twist

Spinning into Butter’s bigger problem is its plot, ranging from predictable (the whodunnit) to contrived (the preposterous MacGuffin that seals Daniels’s fate) to the unconvincing climax in which we’re supposed to believe, two thirds of the way through the play, that despite her actions, Daniels harbors long simmering racist feelings. In a second-act near-monologue, she suddenly reveals past incidents and bottled up rage. She describes an ascent through various strata of self knowledge: denial; acknowledging her white privilege; trying to redress the effects of racism; recognizing the paternalism that underlies her initial do-gooding; confronting the objectification and idealization that she rightly calls out in one of her white liberal colleagues; and finally, acknowledging that black people have agency. As she notes, this was a standard formula of the time, and however inadequate it seems to us today, it’s at least a few steps beyond the neo-Nazis who recently marched through downtown Portland who don’t even get as far as step one.

The problem comes when Daniel suddenly takes a further step and abruptly admits that she still thinks of black people as “lazy and stupid.” After years of tunneling down through her psychology and trying her best to overcome her own racism, Daniels has emerged onto yet another level where the conclusion is still the same one reached in another show from around the same period, Avenue Q: “we’re all a little bit racist.”

Eloquent as it is, and as nobly intended and objectively true (no matter how much we think we’ve conquered our own racism, it’s so deeply embedded that there’s always farther to go), the scene rings dramatically false. It’s told rather than shown; the patronizing actions she’s shown before don’t reflect this newly revealed, late-arriving source; and it just doesn’t jibe with anything we’ve seen about her so far, even if you consider her previous behavior an act of deception, self- or otherwise.

That revelation comes back to haunt her in an improbable development that probably explains why Gilman didn’t stop a step sooner, which would have been more believable but would also have failed to set up the closing plot twist that would be a spoiler to reveal. While it (artificially) inflates the dramatic stakes, I’m not even convinced it’s really necessary.

Uncomfortable Absence

Another lack I felt throughout the show was the absence of the African American victim, Simon Brick, whose reactions we hear only second hand, relayed by the white characters. Of course, Gilman recognized the problem, and tries to compensate with a subplot involving another student of color. But when Daniels tries to help Patrick Chibas, a Nuyorican student, with a scholarship, her paternalism causes her to fumble that well-meaning attempt, too. “I mean, I’m standing right here in front of you,” Chibas tells Daniels. “Are you even looking at me?”

Yet though erasure is acknowledged here, and I understand that Brick’s absence is, in a way, part of Gilman’s point, and that this a story about the hypocritical white response, not the never-seen black person ostensibly at the center… nevertheless, in a time, half a century after Invisible Man, in which white Americans are belatedly beginning to recognize the “erasure” of people of color (in voice as well as in person, and sometimes, in places like Ferguson, in actual death), the fact that all these white people kept talking about a black person who’s not even there kept nagging at me. Maybe Gilman, a la Sarah Silverman, wanted us to be uncomfortable. Yet it contributes to a suspicion that the play uses race more as a device to spoof and skewer academia than to honestly deal with the racial issues it raises. And given the sensitivity of the subject today, that just feels wrong. It’s probably unreasonable, and maybe I’m applying 2017 standards to a 1999 story, but I can’t pretend I didn’t feel it, here and now.

It certainly helps, though, that Chibas is brilliantly played here by Bag & Baggage’s latest discovery, Southern Oregon University drama student Carlos Trujillo, a Hillsboro High School grad in, unbelievably, his first professional role. With his ability to convincingly summon a believably wide range of emotional responses without ever sounding like he’s grandstanding, I’m sure many more roles will follow.

That’s one of several ace acting jobs. Peter Schuyler’s hilariously pompous Professor Burton Strauss gets most of the funniest lines. Andrew Beck balances sympathy and cluelessness as Daniels’s faculty colleague and ex-lover Prof. Ross Collins. Phillip Berns brings a believable sincerity (and earlier, necessary insincerity) to a white student struggling to move from self-interest to real understanding. Morgan Cox is similarly solid as the conniving Dean Kenney, and, at least until his final over-the-top scene, Rusty Tennant plays the campus cop with commendable grounded restraint that makes us root for him.

Kymberli Colbourne in Bag & Baggage Productions’ ‘Spinning into Butter.’ Photo: Casey Campbell Photography.

But the big triumph is Colbourne’s sensitive portrayal of Daniels, whose inconsistently scripted character makes Colbourne‘s powerful performance all the more impressive. Simultaneously wryly intelligent yet vulnerable, she convincingly conveys her alienated character’s shifting self-image, making us identify with Daniels’s genuine desire to do right and her genuine anguish as she confronts her own inability to do so. It’s the finest leading performance I’ve seen on an Oregon stage this year, and alone worth the price of admission.

The intimacy of B&B’s spiffy new Vault Theater magnifies the necessary intensity. “I was uncomfortable and angry for a lot of the show,” one audience member noted in a talkback. “I was sitting on the edge of my seat, fully engaged in the story, and frustrated at how little honest communication was happening between the characters. In the middle of the second act, though, I realized that these weren’t other people’s problems, these were my problems, and I was just as guilty of not listening, and not understanding, as the people in the play.”

It’s hard to imagine that kind of insight, or this kind of play, happening in the company’s capacious old home, the Venetian Theatre. In fact, I actually wanted it to be more uncomfortable; actors’ entrances occurred so far from the central table where most of the action happens that it dissipated some of the Twelve Angry Men-styletension the show needs. Other production elements, including recordings of folky pop songs that comment obliquely on the action, worked well enough, and director Palmer kept the actors moving around the small space enough to provide some visual variety in the constrained, in-the-round space.

Conversation Starter

Admittedly, much has changed since Gilman’s scathing satire of academic hypocrisy premiered in 1999. Racial conflict has reached a level of public urgency and intensity not seen since the violent confrontations of the 1960s. Instead of a moderate neoliberal national political administration, we’re ruled by an avowedly retrograde regime whose most influential supporters are whites opposed to losing their unfairly privileged social and economic standing. Against this national backdrop, the squabblings and posturings of a few impotent white pseudo-liberals seem, well, academic, less urgent than two decades ago.  It’s paradoxically frustrating that so many years later, we still have to deal with this rudimentary aspect of racism — educating clueless white people — yet simultaneously it feels more necessary than ever. That’s more a comment on our society’s lack of progress than the play.

In fact, after the horrors of Charlottesville, which happened during rehearsals, the company changed the ending a bit, adding a dissonant nonverbal postscript that the actors, in a post-show talkback, said felt less “kumbayah” that is, less comforting. That depends on how you read the original, which my companion, who dislikes the play as a whole, found moving in its despair.

Before its plot falls apart, though, Spinning Into Butter offers a host of important insights about unacknowledged racism that a lot of white folks — maybe especially those of us who think we’re too enlightened to be racist — do need to hear, and does so in a dramatic forum that doesn’t feel like a lecture. It provides a safe place to grapple with these issues, on stage and maybe in after-play conversations. For all its flaws, it’ll make you think — and more important, talk. And, let’s hope, listen.

Those conversations need to happen. Hypocrisy and self deception in confronting racial issues remain, alas, ever-relevant topics, and particularly so in blue regions like western Oregon, where many of us white progressives falsely imagine that we can’t be part of the problem.

Which brings up another issue: normally we don’t talk too much about reviewers instead of the thing being reviewed, but let’s acknowledge: I’m a white guy, the playwright is a white woman, and therefore our own perspective is necessarily limited. We would love to hear the views of readers of color. No matter what your color, if you saw or read the play, please weigh in in the comments section below

Along with the production itself, the company provides a study guide, blog, and talk backs for airing these necessary conversations. While much will be familiar to anyone paying attention, give B&B credit for providing context to a full range of its audience, and giving them an entry way before their defenses can spring up. And in truth, even those of us who think we’re familiar with racism’s continuing toll, and immune from its effects, could use a refresher, and another opportunity to confront the blind spots and white noise that continue to affect —  and often confound — us all.

Spinning Into Butter runs from September 7 through the 24 at The Vault Theatre & Event Space, 350 E Main Street in downtown Hillsboro. In addition, B&B will be partnering with The Seventh Art Stand for their fall film screening series, Uplifting Black Voices. The intimate documentary Raising Bertie, the story of three African-American boys coming of age in Bertie County, North Carolina, will be presented on Wednesday September 20 at 7:30pm. Tickets to the screening are free, with a suggested donation of $5, and can be reserved online at www.bagnbaggage.org.

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