A Black woman sits on a blue train seat reading a book. An older white man sits across from her, also reading.
Melanie Victoria and Brad Harbaugh in Pulled Punches at MPAACT Credit: Shepsu Aakhu

Tina Fakhrid-Deen’s latest play, Pulled Punches, gives audiences a close-up of a developing relationship between two characters, Isis (Melanie Victoria) and Charles (Brad Harbaugh), over the course of their 90-minute Metra ride. As Isis, a Black woman, eagerly looks forward to returning home to watch Scandal, Charles, a white adjunct African American studies professor from Northwestern and self-proclaimed “ally” to the revolution, continuously disrupts her evening. 

Pulled Punches
Through 5/29: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, mpaact.org, $20-$40.

What starts as not-so-subtle flirting and cringeworthy comments from Charles about being “down with the swirl” begins to morph into something much darker. It doesn’t take long for Charles’s biases to be revealed as he fervently denies his white privilege and targets Isis with a series of micro- and macro-level aggressions. So for Isis, the question remains: How long will she pull punches before finally striking back? 

Victoria and Harbaugh display electric chemistry on stage, which is only elevated by the play’s intimate Metra-inspired set design. The contained nature of the set, along with Fakhrid-Deen’s engaging script (there are deliberate echoes of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play, Dutchman), emphasize the political nature of taking up (and invading) space. Some moments of comedic relief occasionally come off as off-putting when following heated scenes between Isis and Charles. (Although words can do no justice to Harbaugh’s breaking skills.)

Pulled Punches, directed for MPAACT by Lauren Wells-Mann, raises big questions and provides sharp commentary on issues such as reparations, affirmative action, and the stakes of vulnerability. But at the heart of this story is Isis, whose evening on the Metra is a clear representation of the danger of simply existing as a Black woman in this country.