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Review - The Submission: A Dream Deferred

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Whether you view first-time playwright Jeff Talbot's The Submission as satire, a cautionary tale, a commentary on American race relations, an offensively naïve creation of some crazy white guy or a reaction to the recent controversy regarding Porgy and Bess might depend on how willing you are to accept its basic premise:

A young white playwright from a middle-class upbringing, whose work has never attracted much interest, is inspired by a homophobic comment directed at him by a black youth to write a drama situated around an alcoholic black mother living in the projects with her card sharp son. Despite his admission that he has no knowledge of these types of characters, the first people who read it are shocked by his insightfulness. The author, as surprised by his work as they are, explains that the characters just wrote themselves.

He gives the play the inflammatory title, Call A Spade, and submits it to the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays, which not only accepts it, but lines up one of the theatre's most prominent black names to direct its premiere. Before it even opens, his work is being compared with that of Lorraine Hansberry.

There's just one problem. Convinced that it would never be taken seriously as the work of a white male author, he submitted the play under the penname Shaleeha G'ntamobi and everyone involved in the festival believes Call A Spade was written by a woman of African descent.

Right away I can picture some of the protestors who have had nothing to do since The Scottsboro Boys closed printing up their flyers and insisting that you don't have to see the play to know it's offensive. But no matter how you buy Talbot's plot, a viewing of The Submission is bound to be one of the most electrically-charged theatre outings of the season. The dialogue is rapid and rhythmic and director Walter Bobbie's excellent ensemble smoothly balances the evening's high tension and thoughtful comedy in a play that insists that sometimes bigotry is what happens to words somewhere between the time they escape someone's lips and land on another's ears.

Jonathan Groff is playwright Danny, who sets out to resolve his predicament by hiring Emilie (Rutina Wesley), a black actress, to play the role of Ms. G'ntamobi throughout casting, rehearsals and up until opening night, revealing the truth only after the play receives what he expects to be raves. In return, Emilie will earn a generous percentage of future royalties. While naturally suspicious of the deal, the actress, who read the play without knowing the author's true identity, believes it to be an important work that could perhaps bring her some financial stability.

The audience's expectation that this is never going to work is certainly fulfilled, and the expected conflicts do arise, but it's the manner in which certain ideas are express, and the balanced sympathy given to both sides that makes The Submission a rarity among racially-charged plays.

The first hint that this will be a troubled collaboration is revealed when Danny, who at one point shares with a buddy how happy he is to finally have someone of another ethnic culture in his circle of friends, innocently jokes to Emilie about black artists who receive undeserved honors when arts organizations want to appear more inclusionary. (As the play goes on, the fragments of information we get about Call A Spade indicate that, despite all the praise, it may not be especially good after all, making Danny's view seem justified in this case.) His cheerful tone indicates that he's mistakenly assumed that Emilie will see his being gay as placing him in the same victimized community she inhabits, allowing him the privilege of saying certain things.

Emilie likes Danny, and at first recognizes that his naiveté has him speaking out of ignorance and not hatred. But as Danny feels more and more comfortable about sharing his opinions of what he, in his young life, perceives as the obstacles put in the way of white male playwrights, Emilie counters that the only prejudice he faces, being gay, is something he could change if he wanted to. In context, her remarks, however ignorant, come off as acts of self-defense. This is not a play about trying to put someone down with bigotry, but rather about two people's desires for the advantages they perceive the other as having.

As engrossing and well-mounted as The Submission is, it could not work at all without two actors who can convincingly play characters who can say hurtful things without alienating the audience's sympathy. Groff does an exemplary job of gradually revealing the initially sweet and appealing Danny as immature, pig-headed and self-involved but so unaware of the effects of his actions that he becomes an object of pathos. Wesley's Emilie begins as a sharp woman who is always aware of being on the defensive but when Danny refuses to make changes in the script that the director is recommending - specifically, cutting down the occurrences of a certain word - she's devastated to realize that she's submitted herself to being the voice of the insensitive white guy against the accomplished colleague of her own race.

The play's two additional characters mainly serve to help provide exposition and give Danny and Emilie someone to speak privately with. Eddie Kaye Thomas helps lighten up the proceedings as Danny's boyfriend, Pete, and Will Rogers ups the play's potential for a violent confrontation, playing Danny's friend Trevor, who begins a romantic relationship with Emilie.

David Zinn's clever unit set has quick-moving panels efficiently suggesting various locations as Ryan Romery and Christian Frederickson's music increases the tension level between scenes. An amusing gag has several scenes taking place in different, but identical, Starbucks with the passage of time indicated by the seasonal coffees advertised on a chalk board.

At one point in the play Emilie tries convincing Danny that words can act as bullets. Danny insists, "It's only a bullet if you load the gun with it." What keeps attention totally glued to The Submission is that the figurative gun is always right in front of us, waiting for someone to be pushed to the point of loading the bullet.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jonathan Groff; Bottom: Rutina Wesley.

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