Actress Lee Stark would appear to be the consensus vision of what a nonwhite lawyer wants in a white woman. Back in 2012 she played pink-skinned, blond Emily, wife of Amir, the second-generation Pakistani-American whose sophisticated facade cracks in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, revealing deep-seated tribal instincts. Now here she is playing pink-skinned, blond Suzy, significant other of Jackson, the hood-raised African-American whose sophisticated facade cracks in Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer, revealing—well, you get the idea.
In both roles, Stark has given us earnest, well-intentioned women, at least ostensibly willing to accommodate their mates’ otherness—though they themselves look, as I wrote about Emily, like they’d be “perfectly at home serving pie at a Grange dinner.” In both roles too, Stark shows us where the accommodation ends. Emily and Suzy have crackable facades of their own. Suzy, in particular, is introduced as a burned-out inner-city teacher trying to convince her supervisor that it wasn’t “fuck you” she said during a confrontation with a student. No! It was “frack you”! Different word entirely! Clearly, Suzy needs a break, and one is supplied in the form of “administrative leave pending an investigation.”
Jackson, meanwhile, may be more of a handful than Amir. Raised by a single mother in an unspecified New York slum, he basically tested out of poverty, finding his way first to Exeter, then to Harvard College, and finally to Harvard Law. You’d think that, what with his Ivy League cred and a berth at a Manhattan firm, he’d be happy to face forward and ride farther and farther into the elite. But of course, that’s not how these things work. Jackson is tormented by his unsettled sense of identity. Growing up, he was never comfortable with the tough-guy tribal ways of the ghetto, even as he absorbed them. He never mastered lumpen etiquette, never took on the conventional public signs and signifiers of a poor black kid. He was an outsider then, and his current persona doesn’t seem any more secure, inasmuch as his colleagues at work appear to practice a coy, sotto voce racism, giving him the grunt work on cases.
Under the circumstances, anger may be the one thing Jackson can legitimately call his own. He can’t afford to acknowledge that, however, without throwing over any vestige of equilibrium. So he’s found an interesting way of expressing it. A way so heavily disguised that he can maintain plausible deniability even to himself.
It’s a two-step scenario. First there’s the business of the condo he’s taken on a rent-to-own basis. Jackson argues that it’s a great investment in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. (His proof? Two gay guys living across the hall.) And he can feel added satisfaction in the fact that this particular rapidly gentrifying neighborhood is the very one he grew up in. He’s back, in other words, in triumph.
Second is the matter of his roommates at the new place. For all the tenderness he displays toward her and the commitment he confirms by asking her to move in with him, Jackson doesn’t consult Suzy on his choice of digs even though that choice puts her at risk as a young, middle-class white woman—and therefore an easy target—in a contested community. He also gives her little room to respond when he invites their sweet but utterly fucked-up mutual friend Don to stay with them while Don gets over his eighth relapse into drug addiction. In an amusing and pointed reversal of stereotypes, Don is a privileged white kid who’s nevertheless as comfortable in the streets and fluent in ghetto culture as Jackson patently isn’t.
With fragile Don and burned-out Suzy all but imprisoned in the new apartment, relying on each other for company while Jackson works his pride-sapping job, the trap is set. What happens next can be taken as inevitable. Yet when the moment arrives in the current Goodman Theatre production, it isn’t shocking for its dramatic or sensational qualities, but because it comes across as pure contrivance. The guy sitting behind me at the Buzzer performance I saw gave out a loud “What?!”—i.e., “Hunh?!”—at the crucial juncture, and I entirely agree with him.
Why should that be? Why should events that make good narrative sense when you think about them make no sense at all in performance? I think it’s a matter of skewed dynamics. In Jessica Thebus‘s staging, Jackson is so completely the victim—and Eric Lynch’s portrayal of him so sympathetic—that the issue of his culpability in what happens between Don and Suzy is never addressed. The roomies wreck his life, not the other way around. They’re not people but agents of the playwright’s message. Lacking any independent being, they exist only to torture poor Jackson. And so, when they get together, it looks like they’re acting against their will, their better interests, and even the rules of attraction. Hence, “What?!”
Oddly enough, pretty much the same thing happened to Stark’s Emily for pretty much the same reason in Disgraced.
As Don, Shane Kenyon saves himself by playing every endearing-loser note at his disposal. Faced with fewer alternatives, Stark doesn’t find a viable way out.