Zeitgeist Stage again lives up to its stellar reputation for producing compelling, edgy scripts. Jeff Talbott’s THE SUBMISSION (playing through May 30th) is a juggernaut. Director David Miller takes your breath away and doesn’t let go ‘til the final scene. You don’t get an intermission and you don’t get to breathe during lightening fast scene changes either—unless you’re impervious to the Krupa-esque blitz riffs in J. Jumbelic’s brilliant sound design.
What’s going on to fuel this runaway train? A gay, white writer is tired of just getting readings of his work so he writes a “Black” play and submits it to the prestigious Humana Festival under a pseudonym, an ethnic sounding (he thinks) female name. Just as he hoped, it’s gobbled up by the Humana folks and now they want to meet him (her). What’s to be done? He hires an African-American actress to be him. The result? Fireworks.
What a cast Miller has assembled: They play off each other like electric charges, each igniting the fuse in the other. Victor Shopov is the driven playwright who can’t see the forest for the trees and Aina Adler is the ferocious, righteous actress who takes him on. Matthew Fagerberg is the loyal friend stuck in the middle of the morass and Diego Buscaglia is the playwright’s clear headed husband. He’s the only one who can see “landmines” in those woods. (Buscaglia gets a wonderfully funny AMERICAN BUFFALO moment, ranting off stage about everyone’s stupidity.)
As Tavis Smiley would say, let’s unpack Talbott’s subtext. The story itself is riveting but as a bonus, Talbott gets to drag out all the nasty gripes that whites have about Blacks and that straights have about gays—and place them in the minds and mouths of his characters. You know, the accusation that Blacks get awards because of political correctness and that a “gay mafia” is running American theater.
When Talbott’s playwright asserts that gays are the “new underclass,” the actress is enraged. (People will be taking sides over this play for sure.) What is indisputable, the angered actress says, is that a gay man can hide his sexuality if he wants to but an African-American cannot hide his identity. (As the Fats Waller lyric goes, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case…”) What the two have in common, of course, is the discrimination they both face but she won’t let him equate the two.
The gay “mafia” claim in SUBMISSION is deliberately absurd and the audience laughs in unison—but when the playwright complains about the practice of non-traditional casting—He’s tired of seeing a “Black Mrs. Cratchitt in A CHRISTMAS CAROL”—he’s making the assumption that’s shared by a lot of people, that actors of color have found a place in American theater. Have they? How about turnabout? Is it fair play?
A critic I know used the fair play phrase when I was up in arms about a significant number of designated diverse roles being given wholesale to white actors where it makes no sense morally or dramatically: Like the white actress in A CHORUS LINE spouting dialogue about how hard it is to be Asian-American, or the white actor in SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (twice, two different companies) claiming to be “the brother you call…” Is there really so much work available for actors of color that they don’t miss the occasional loss of a role?
Is it really OK to cast an all Black show like THE WIZ with (a few or a lot of) white actors? Is it OK to cast white actors when no actors of color audition? Is it OK to cast a white singer in blackface? The Metropolitan Opera is about to do it again. The last Othello they had in blackface (on the HD transmission year before last) perspired so heavily that his makeup ironically refused to stay on his face, obscenely sliding down his costume. Why they’re doing it again is beyond me but let’s just stick to theater. The facts are that actors of color do not have lots of work. The playing field is not even… so kudos to Zeitgeist for reenergizing the discussion.
Don’t miss SUBMISSION for any reason, including price because Wednesdays are pay-what-you-can!