Theatre as conversation starter: it’s a metaphor we often pull out when we’re trying to justify theatre’s existence. “To teach and to please” was the catchphrase back in the 18th century, and Taproot Theatre’s current production–Janece Shaffer’s Brownie Points–manifests that ideal explicitly. One of the characters even suggests early in the play that there will be “teaching moments” before the evening is over. And indeed there are. But as we know, in any classroom, not all students are interested in the subject matter. Nor do students always grasp the importance of the material being presented.
Shaffer’s play, in brief, tells the story of a night in Forsyth County, Georgia, where five moms are herding a group of Brownie Scouts through a camping experience among trees that may be beautiful, but that have a dark side: back in the day, these trees were lynching trees. If Brownie Points was a tragedy, those trees would loom ominously and threaten to kill again, and Shaffer nods in that direction when a rainstorm symbolically knocks one of these trees over (it was rotten to the core anyway–nice) but it’s the storm going on inside the little cabin that interests us. It’s the stuck-in-the-elevator story, only it’s a little camper’s cabin (Mark Lund’s design catches it exactly, down to the bad river painting on the wall) in a racially charged forest. What happens when two white Christian moms, one Jewish mom, and two black moms find themselves at odds over perceptions and slights and racial assumptions, and the lights go out?
The polite tolerances we normally ascribe to suddenly go out the window.
My own research of the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow neo-slavery, and the questions of racial injustice involved in the unequal application of current drug law (I’m writing a play, too) has opened my eyes to the need for the conversations of race Brownie Points wants to initiate, and it is to Shaffer’s credit that her play achieves this with both subtlety and power. I say subtlety–the play veritably whacks you over the head with the conversation. But that’s not offered as a negative critique, but an observation of cleverness. How else to get your audiences to not only get the point, but to say with it? Reflect on it? Talk about it? Frankly, the subject of race is one many audiences (white ones especially) would just as soon skip over. I’m reminded of Barbara Brown Taylor’s adage that the job of the artist is to “hold the chin” of the audience, fixing their gaze on the focus of the work of art, “until wisdom rises.” Well, fixing our gaze on racism and white privilege is not easy; the “chin” (and the eyes) of an audience would just as soon move on pretty quickly. But Shaffer grabs our chin with muscle, and as she ramps up the conversation, she’s tickling those chins all the while, and now we’re back to the cleverness I mentioned a minute ago.
Sure, we’re getting whacked-on-the-head, but it’s a nerf-ish hammer–a very intelligent and serious one, and one that will eventually get harder (but by the time we realize we’ve got a bruise on our noggin, we really don’t mind), but still–the comedy of it is what makes the conversation possible. Moliere knew a little secret, as does Jon Stewart, as did the producers of the brilliant All in the Family a few decades ago: humor is the hammer to use, the tool that opens the heart to let tough things slip in. We laugh and laugh, and then realize, “Oh, she’s not kidding.” And unless you put lots of effort into resisting the evening, you’ll end up at home doing exactly what Shaffer hoped; trading stories about the characters in the play and their travails, laughing all over again, and before you know it, you’re talking about your own experience of race, whatever it may be. And in that laughter, there will be some moment where you stop and get just a little sick inside, and your living room will go quiet. Suddenly you’ll get the sinking feeling that you’re not outside the conversation after all, that you are not among the enlightened as you thought. You are smack in the middle of the conversation. You’re one of the cabin moms, and secretly, you’re a little shocked to discover there are attitudes buried inside of you that are beyond troubling.
And those conversations over late night coffee with your friends, your family, and your shifting understandings of what “the other” goes through…they are the point.
Does Taproot achieve their mission in this play? Absolutely.
Hats off to a great ensemble of theatre makers. The cast of Karen Ann Daniels, Amy Love, Faith Russell, Nikki Visel, and Casi Wilkerson come at these women with respect and sincerity, and they skillfully deliver the uneasy “what just happened?” atmosphere that pervades when we bang into that unexpected race conversation. The evening is pretty much pitch perfect, delivering the play squarely and smoothly right into the heart of playwright Shaffer’s intention.
An audience with a conversation to have, a conversation well worth having.
Go see it…