The 1999 play, a congenial production of which opened last week at Invisible Theatre, starts off like a conventional campus comedy. At a small college in Vermont, art professor Ross Collins (Roscoe Gaines) and administrator Sarah Daniels (Amy Almquist) are sorting out their love affair, while their older colleagues, deans Catherine Kenney (Jetti Ames) and Burton Strauss (Manny Ferris), bicker over the usual life-and-death issues of academia--curriculum, office size, administrative procedure.
Into this little David Lodge idyll intrude reports of ugly, racist notes left at the dorm-room door of one of the college's black students. The faculty members, shocked that such a thing could happen, immediately take action: They schedule a forum on inclusiveness and cultural diversity, to which mainly the white students show up. Sarah isn't enthusiastic about the plan, remarking that white people talk earnestly about racism, then just heave a sigh of collective guilt and go shopping.
Sarah is white and having race issues of her own. It's not just the way she bumbles through a scholarship award to a deserving "Nuyorican" student (not Puerto Rican, because he's never been there; not Hispanic, because those were the imperialist oppressors). No, it's more than that. As we learn in her 20-minute, Act 2 monolog, liberal and understanding Sarah knows that in her heart, she is a racist.
Although she realizes that the vast majority of black people are decent, ordinary, human beings, she can't help being offended and frightened by the few loud, angry, menacing young black men she's encountered on trains and in hallways. She took every Africana Studies course she could in graduate school, but all she learned in the end was to appreciate blacks as objects--like bottles of good Bordeaux--and objectification is a form of racism. She can't label some difficult black students as lazy and stupid, because they're too disadvantaged to help it.
This could be the stuff of dangerously sharp satire, but by the time Sarah's scene of self-loathing arrives, Gilman has turned dead serious. Here's a news flash: Seeing a black person as the "other" has little to do with racism anymore. It has to do with recognizing difference, and difference takes many forms. Sarah is reluctant to sit next to black men on a train when other seats are open. Well, other people may want to keep their distance from rural Southern white men, teen skateboarders, masculine women, effeminate men, the morbidly obese or pouty young women in black outfits not designed by Coco Chanel. Objectification of others happens with every encounter on the street or in the bedroom, because they are not I.
While Gilman wrings her hands over white racism, she hardly acknowledges the possibility that people of color can be racist, too, and she bars all people of color, except the Nuyorican student, from her play. Any real dialog between blacks and whites is anecdotal and offstage. Gilman has said in an interview that as a white playwright, she's not qualified to write from a black character's point of view, yet she doesn't hesitate to put men into her plays, despite being a woman.
Furthermore, though Gilman has Sarah say that idealizing someone is patronizing (because it eliminates the possibility that the person you idealize can be your equal), Gilman blatantly idealizes a good-hearted, white campus cop (Michael F. Woodson). Instead of agonizing over the racism of white liberals, maybe we should address the hypocrisy of playwrights.
At any rate, Gilman clearly wants audiences to leave the theater arguing over the issues raised by the play, and in this, she surely succeeds. Despite the script's flaws, Invisible Theatre's deft production persuades you, at least for a moment, that Spinning Into Butter might be for racism what David Mamet's Oleanna was for sexual harassment. It's not as rich a play, but director Yolanda Lyon Miller and the cast make you want to believe in it, if only until the house lights come up.
The characters remain sympathetic, even as they swing from self-serving statements to outbursts of self-loathing. Almquist does a particularly marvelous job of humanizing Sarah--an easy target of ridicule--and her long, brutally candid monolog is the highlight of the evening. Gaines has an easy way as the dithering intellectual Ross, refusing to let his ruminations on morality make him monstrous. Ames and Ferris as the deans provide low-key comic relief, and Woodson is so solid as the kind, sensible campus cop that you expect him to amble in and fix everything in the end. Rick Windon nicely conveys his Nuyorican character's frustration and incredulity without pushing him into an "Angry Young Latino" stereotype, and Joe Shaffner ably portrays an opportunistic white student.
Right now, Spinning Into Butter--the title alludes to the tale of Little Black Sambo--is an entertaining play with many laughs in the first act and a too-earnest second act that provokes thoughts for perhaps the wrong reasons. At 20 years' distance, the whole thing will probably play as farce.