Theater in black and white

Two Chicago plays -- "Jitney" and "Spinning into Butter" -- tackle racial issues from opposite sides of the tracks.

Published August 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On different stages of Chicago's prestigious Goodman Theater this
summer, two playwrights -- one a white woman, the other a black man -- have explored
the American drama of race in two gripping and thoughtful
productions. The first, "Spinning Into Butter," is a controversial
play by the highly praised newcomer Rebecca Gilman.
Opening in New York next season after its Chicago premiere, "Spinning into Butter" tells the story of a white, well-intentioned college dean whose deeply
conflicted and befuddled feelings about race erupt in the midst of a
crisis at her small, nearly all-white liberal arts school. The second, "Jitney," is
a newly revised work by one of the nation's leading playwrights,
two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, an African-American who
has stirred debate over his call for better funding for theaters
controlled by black artists. Part of his decade-by-decade saga of
African-American life in the 20th century, "Jitney" lays out the tragedy
of a hard-working man whose hopes for his son -- and for his own life -- are
dashed, not so much by an overt act of racism as by the slowly grinding
wheels of a prejudiced social machine.

In both plays, the dilemmas in confronting racism's legacy lead to
personal as well as social tragedy. The juxtaposition of the two reveals how the master/slave dynamic has persisted long after slavery's end. Gilman's characters
struggle with race from a largely white perspective: How should they talk -- and
how do they really feel -- about blacks and other minorities? Is anything
correct about "political correctness"? What can they do to assuage
their guilt or help minorities? Wilson's characters -- all of them black -- face the flip side of those issues: How can blacks maintain their dignity in a society that denigrates them and would prefer to ignore them, except when actively blocking their attempts to
make meaningful lives for themselves? What kinds of compromises are
acceptable, or necessary, with whites and the power elite? Is it
possible to maintain an African-American identity and community without
resources under African-American control? The common theme is that blacks and
whites alike are trapped by history -- no confrontation with the legacy of racism has a
chance of success without addressing the continuing imbalance of power.

"Spinning Into Butter" takes place in the office of Dean Sarah Daniels, who is in her first year at a small Vermont college. It's clear from the start that Daniels means well. She wants to provide a special minority scholarship to a deserving student. But when the chosen recipient edgily insists on being identified as "Nuyorican," Daniels tries to
cajole him into being Puerto Rican for the sake of the forms
she must fill out. Later, when it's reported that two racist notes had
been attached to the door of black student Simon Brick's room, the white administrators, faculty and students all rush to advance their various self-serving agendas: They keep it quiet (to avoid bad public relations); call a campus-wide meeting (and write a lengthy paper analyzing and condemning racism); and form Students for Tolerance (to bolster chances of getting into law school). Nobody bothers to consult the minority students -- and only Daniels suggests talking to Simon first.

As the campus crisis deepens, the other administrators demand that
Daniels come up with a concise, 10-point plan for battling racism on campus -- one
that won't require much money, but promises to have "great impact." In a long night at the office, Daniels begins making a list, in parts cynical, whimsical and painfully ambivalent. "Stop being stupid," is the first step on the not-terribly helpful agenda. "Admit defeat," it concludes.

Daniels unleashes her tirade of confusion and despair to a horrified colleague. She wants to help minorities -- she even studied African-American literature! Maybe nothing
works, she fears. Maybe she can't transcend racism. Then the tone
shifts ominously: Maybe blacks can't either. She reflects on her
experience at a black college, and living in Chicago. "In the
abstract" blacks were fine, she said, "but in reality they were so
rude." Although the people who irritated her may have been a minority
within a minority, "the ones who were awful seemed exceptionally awful,
loud and belligerent and abusive ... I know blacks have agency," she
acknowledges, but thinks maybe they don't succeed just because they're "lazy
and stupid."

After the FBI determines that Simon sent the notes to himself, he
is expelled by the other administrators, without so much as a phone
call to his parents. Daniels falls victim to the crisis as well.
There is as little effort to understand Simon's actions as there was to
support him as a lonely and isolated student, but the cop who drives
him home observes afterwards to Daniels, "He wouldn't have done that to
himself if somebody hadn't done something to him." Daniels notes that
Simon was like the storybook character of Little Black Sambo, getting
all the menacing tigers to chase each other around the tree,
ultimately "spinning into butter."

Gilman argues that whites objectify blacks as the "other," thus
failing to treat them as equals who might be worthy of respect. This
seems equally true whether her white characters have few encounters
with blacks (as with most of the Vermont academics) or many encounters (as
Daniels does). At one level, the play is a gibe at "political
correctness," which is presented as often being a fraudulent cover for
deeper, unexamined racial prejudice, ignorance or distrust. The
anguished and self-important academics are easy comic targets,
especially with the campus cop playing salt-of-the-earth foil. Daniels
is portrayed as warm-hearted but pathetic as she apologetically
navigates the terrain of her own guilt, but despite her impolitic
outburst she has more compassion than her colleagues. The problem with
"political correctness," however, seems less in the aspiration to
confront racism and more in the failure to take individuals seriously
in a world driven by bureaucratic categories and sociological
abstractions. In the end, the white administrators had the power not only to
define those categories and award aid, but also to summarily expel Simon
because he violated their terms for dealing with racism.

It is hard to argue with Daniels' plea for frank, person-to-person
communication. Daniels' long lament about "lazy and stupid" blacks
is a shocker on stage, coming from the middle-class academic. "Can't
people admit they feel this way?" the dean asks. But to what end? If
such bluntness led to any meaningful dialogue on race, it might be
worthwhile, but it is more likely simply to legitimize the expression
of bigoted statements that have been thankfully dampened out of guilt,
shame or "political correctness." These sentiments may mask real
feelings, but sometimes frankness or honesty can simply be an excuse
for sloppy thinking or crude prejudice.

The key issue is not so much objectification, political correctness or
some aspect of identity politics as it is who has power to define
social identities and relationships -- white-controlled corporations,
media empires, universities and political organizations. Facing up to
objectification ultimately necessitates contending with powerlessness,
either submitting to it or struggling against it. That struggle with
powerlessness may lead as readily to personal pathologies, such as
Simon's notes, as political movements, whether it's Students for
Tolerance or the minority student organization. On the other hand, although
whites in "Spinning Into Butter" may agonize over how to deal with
blacks in their midst and what is the appropriate terminology and
conduct, they do not confront the fact that they still have
disproportionate power in the college and society, even with their ambiguous
power to "do good."

The world of Wilson's jitney drivers -- operators of illegal but crucial taxis in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up -- is surrounded by whites, at times
penetrated by whites and always heavily influenced by whites, but
there are no white characters to the drama. Indeed, for all the
deleterious effects of the white-dominated power structure on the lives
of these men, one of them suggests that most whites don't even know
they exist -- just as the whites in "Spinning Into Butter" barely know
any black people.

Wilson, whose work ranks in the pantheon of American playwrights like Eugene
O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, once again brilliantly sketches memorable
characters and provides a realistic slice of black American life. As in other Wilson plays,
the drama of the African-American community is nearly self-contained here, but this world exists within a society that can -- and does -- reach out and destroy both black
individuals and communities. Whatever the complications that the white
administrators in Gilman's Vermont college have in dealing with blacks,
they pale by comparison with the dilemmas faced by blacks dealing with the whites
who hold so much power over their lives.

Becker, a retired steel-mill worker, runs a jitney station, serving
the unofficial taxi needs of the black community. The jitney drivers
themselves are a rich collection of troubled but hard-working men who
transcend their easy identifications -- an angry young man who is frustrated, but
trying to be a successful husband and father; an amiable drunk with
memories of being a tailor to black stars; a gruff gossip; a player with a
sentimental streak; a philosopher of self-improvement. Life at the
jitney station is a series of constant hustles, negotiations over small
change, limited opportunities and bigger, often faded dreams. The "car
service" offers the men a living and a sense of independence that is
threatened by the city's plans to tear down everything on the street in
the name of urban renewal.

Yet Becker, who provides the initiative and order for the jitney
station, faces a more personal crisis. His son, Booster, is about to
leave prison after serving 20 years for murdering his well-to-do white girlfriend.

Booster's act ultimately kills his mother and his relationship with his
father as well. Becker is bitter that his son, a good student who had
started college, threw away a promising career, but Booster had seen
his father's lifetime of hard work and submissiveness to white
landlords and bosses as making him "small."

Betrayed by his girlfriend, and caught in the web of her father's deeply
hypocritical views of sex and race, Booster had thought that by seeking revenge he could redeem his father and make the Becker family name "big" again -- as his father appeared to the young boy
within the confines of the black community.

Father and son never reconcile, but they indirectly attempt to redeem
themselves to each other. Becker decides to organize the jitney
drivers and fight urban renewal. "We can keep playing by their rules as
we have been," Becker says. "But they change the rules. We've got to do
something else." Yet Becker never gets to try his new strategy, falling victim to his rigorously responsible work ethic. As the dispirited drivers praise his father, Booster reflects that all he ever knew about his father was how hard he worked, and for the first time contemplates stepping into his empty shoes.

One of the beauties of Wilson's plays is the economical way in which he presents complex characters as believable but imperfect human beings. They are
characters as universally human as those in any great drama, yet deeply
rooted in African-American culture and history -- as much black Americans
as Ibsen's characters are Scandinavian or Moliere's French. They are
trying to live out their dreams -- of family, happiness,
livelihood, sexual fulfillment and personal pride -- but within a
context that limits and intrudes upon their actions. The city's elite
can condemn their neighborhood and destroy their business. Landlords
threaten the roof over their heads and the stature of parents in
the eyes of their children. Whites control access to good jobs. Even when blacks
succeed in school, when they reach out and make personal connections to
whites, they face betrayal. But while "Jitney" does offer some understanding of Booster's
rage, the play is clearly unsympathetic to his actions, which destroyed him and his
family and did nothing to right any wrongs. Implicitly, it argues that
the solution is rather for blacks to work together politically and to
create their own base of economic and cultural power.

Quite rightly, neither "Spinning Into Butter" nor "Jitney" attempts to
provide full-blown political analysis, let alone a 10-bullet
program of action for eliminating racism. Both Wilson and Gilman have made serious
efforts to provide realistic portrayals of how the conundrum of race plays out in American
life. In their hands, the tragic flaw in American life becomes the
stuff of great drama.

By David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

MORE FROM David Moberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chicago Language Police Paul Shirley Race