In Rebecca Gilman’s play Spinning into Butter at New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater, administrators at a historically white New England college get their knickers in a twist over a racial incident on campus: a series of racist notes appear on the door of a black student’s dorm room. Most of the faculty members go into high gear designing public maneuvers to distance themselves from any perception of racism. Only Sarah Daniels, the dean of students, thinks it would be a good idea to talk to the student involved and see what he thinks. And only Dean Daniels (played by that excellent super-WASP actress Hope Davis) stops to interrogate the knee-jerk white liberal declaration “I am not a racist.” In a long, extraordinary, dark-night-of-the-soul monologue in act two, she reviews her experience working at a black college in Chicago. The aversion she developed to black people (which she expresses in words like “loud” and “stupid”) fueled her escape to what she hoped would be the peaceful pale-skinned pastures of Vermont.

In many ways, the play is brave for exposing the pathetic lameness of the mainstream dominant culture (what bell hooks calls “the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”) when it comes to matters of race. It nimbly depicts the cover-yer-ass approach to controversy and how that dehumanizes individuals in the process. And the main character’s ruthless self-honesty in struggling with real people and real feelings is rare in any form of mainstream American culture. As a piece of playwriting craft, it has admirable moral complexity, calculated to keep the audience from settling into easy assumptions. And the play is perfectly pitched to the upper-middle-class audience that goes to plays at not-for-profit cultural institutions like Lincoln Center Theater. It’s a provocative exercise in Stirring Up Shit.

AND YET...in another way it makes your heart sink at how clueless these people are, how out of touch with the reality of cultural diversity many of us live with on a daily basis. The assumptions the play makes are almost embarrassingly obtuse. Talking about race essentially means white people saying what they think about black people -- as if “white” is a known quantity unworthy of investigation, as if white people don’t have a race. In a conversation with a student she hopes to award scholarship money, Dean Daniels has a nuanced conversation about his racial identity, which is Nuyorican and explicitly NOT “minority” or “Hispanic” or “Latino” or “Puerto Rican.” Meanwhile, her racial identity never comes up for discussion or bureaucratic alteration.

Maybe the play’s greatest public service is depicting honestly how far behind the mainstream white culture is in coming to grips with the reality of the pluralistic, multicultural, mixed-race, out-of-the-closet, no-turning-back society the United States has become. The play ends with Dean Daniels on the phone to the black student at the center of the campus ruckus, getting over her WASP reserve and venturing to ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” But for those of us deep in the conversation already, I kept thinking of a performance I saw -- also at Lincoln Center -- almost ten years ago by Los Angeles-based African-American performance artist Keith Antar Mason, whose frustrated recurring refrain was “Catch up with me!”

Published online at Platform.net, August 2000

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