Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession

Lookingglass Theatre Company

Most people I know would pay cash money never to have to talk about race again. If they’re white, they’re tired of the compound of guilt and helplessness attached to the subject–and racial privilege, like most privilege, is largely invisible to those who have it. If they’re black or Hispanic or Asian, they’re tired of being seen through a cloud of color, and even more of repeatedly having to educate white people and congratulate them on their infinitesimal progress, like the parents of a backward child. In most professional settings, sessions on “diversity” (our current euphemism for racial conflict) are often mandatory because otherwise people would refuse to participate out of sheer exhaustion. Race may be “the American obsession,” as the title of this production based on the 1992 Studs Terkel book proclaims, but like the Victorian obsession with sex, it’s not readily revealed in public.

So credit is certainly due Lookingglass, and particularly director David Schwimmer, for using his celebrity, the company’s high-profile new space, and Terkel’s iconic status to explore a topic no one wants to discuss. Because we clearly still need to do something about racism: no sooner had the lights gone up at intermission after a seriocomic explanation of how the Puerto Ricans are the niggers of the Latino community and the Irish the niggers of Europe than the man behind me was fuming, “Why do they always pick on the Irish?” Though the point had been made explicitly that it shouldn’t be an insult to be compared to black people–“Why are the niggers always on the bottom?” asks an African-American character–he was immediately up in arms over just that comparison. So while I shake my head sagely and ask why we’re still talking about racism, it’s worth noting that we still need to talk about it. Needing isn’t the same as wanting, however: 48 hours after opening night, in the heart of the Michigan Avenue tourist district, on the very day a full-length profile of Schwimmer appeared in the Tribune magazine, there were quite a few empty seats.

OK, fine, painful subject; that doesn’t invalidate its examination, as Long Day’s Journey Into Night makes manifest. What matters is the approach, and here–despite earnestness to spare and the whole bag of Lookingglass tricks–Race disappoints. If goodwill were all it took to conquer racism or make art about it, this production and our society would be home free. But a problem this intractable requires a different mode of understanding. Terkel’s tales of personal transformation, faithfully adapted by Schwimmer and Joy Greg-

ory, seem quaint. Breaking out of historical patterns about race involves not changing our hearts but changing our minds. Race has few ideas to contribute to that process.

To some extent, this is the nature of the source: influential as the book was, we’re bound to have heard most of its notions already. But Gregory and Schwimmer compound the problem by placing two particularly dated stories at the center of their adaptation. The lynching of Emmett Till, powerful as it is, belongs to the 1950s–it says little about contemporary racial conflict. Similarly, when C.P. Ellis trades his Klan membership for union solidarity with a black community activist, the spirit of the 60s (1970, actually) is almost palpable. Though the show is self-aware about the passage of time–one character describes his inability to sing “We Shall Overcome” yet again–it never really resolves that issue, offering both problems and solutions yellow with age. Racism hasn’t disappeared in the decade since the book’s publication, but our experience of it and conversation about it have changed, which leaves much of Race feeling stale.

There are a few fresh, thought-provoking moments. At the start of the second act, a rapper (played with ferocious energy by Anthony Fleming III) describes the effort of white people–including the audience–to pretend he doesn’t exist. He calls our investment in the status quo “a transaction, an exchange–every time you lock the door, that’s how I exist.” The slight shock–oh, I see, racism creates the things we hate in other races–multiplied 20 times could make a hell of a play. Another such shock comes from Joe Sikora as someone who feels that his encounters with African-Americans are turning him into a racist: “You want ‘cracker’? ‘Cause it’s working”; and another from Cedric Young, pointing out that “racism is a business.” Those are the moments when we can see the Race that might have been, when the intellectual thread running through the show–that someone profits from racial conflict, and it’s not anyone on the front lines–is permitted to stand out from its feel-good coat of many colors.

Schwimmer and Gregory do make fine use of Lookingglass’s traditional strengths: physicality, broad humor, ensemble performance, imagery that conveys ideas. When Mamie Till Mobley (Cheryl Lynn Bruce in another of her powerful portrayals) recounts identifying her son’s drowned body, the ensemble lifts a bundle of wet clothing from a pool with such conviction that it’s transformed into the body. Comedy does some of the most serious work in the show, as when Cheryl Hamada minces up to a member of the audience, smiles sweetly M. Butterfly-style and asks, “Would you like me to please you sexually?” before giving him an unsought foot massage. Though only one scene is titled “Name That Stereotype,” the notion animates the entire production and constitutes its most courageous choice: to play the stereotypes until they’re drained of power. Here Schwimmer and Gregory follow in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce, who urged President Kennedy to go on the air and say “I’d like to introduce all the niggers in my cabinet”–because suppressing the word only maintains its wounding power.

The show’s 12 cast members–Tony Fitzpatrick stands out as the reformed Klansman–make it a pleasure to watch. And despite Schwimmer’s overearnestness as an adapter, he has a light directorial touch, facilitating the actors’ transitions between monologue and dialogue, realistic scenario and theatrical presentation, humor and rage. These multiple approaches provide a real feel for the many dimensions of the problem.

Lookingglass has chosen a topic about which everyone who walks in the door will have strong feelings: to the extent that provoking strong feelings is the work of the theater, this company is halfway home before the curtain goes up. What follows is worth seeing for its expression of our hunger to understand this problem and put it to rest. If only the production could satisfy the appetite it stimulates.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.