We're right to be suspicious of leaders who loudly spout their righteous certitudes. Thoughtful people know that moral rectitude, ethnic traditions, civil liberties, and political correctness can often crisscross into bewildering tangles and conundrums.
Sidney Horton, who is directing Three Bone Theatre's The Submission, puts it more bluntly: "We all are clumsy when we deal with race and sexual orientation."
Opening at Spirit Square this Thursday, Jeff Talbott's comedy drama goes one better than holding up a mirror to our clumsiness. The playwright turns his mirror back around from his audience and shows that the same clumsiness — and assorted prejudices — also afflict theatre artists.
Talbott's protagonist, Danny Larsen, has written a play about an African-American mother and her cardsharping son striving to escape the projects to build a better life. Trouble is, Danny is white, which could seriously hurt his chances of getting produced at the prestigious Humana Theatre Festival, where he submits his manuscript. At an ill-advised moment, Danny decides to overcome this liability by submitting his playscript under the very African name of Shaleeha G'ntamobi.
Getting selected for the festival compounds Danny's woes, because he can't come clean about his true race and gender. Instead, he decides to hire a black actress to bring Shaleeha to life. But Danny is in for a lot more blowback than he bargains for: Emilie isn't buying Danny's premise that, just because he's gay, he can understand the challenges of growing up black in America.
Horton's choice to play Danny isn't exactly surprising. Tackling Talbott's playwright, Scott Miller is playing his second writer in the past four months after his role as Trigorin in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, an Anton Chekhov knockoff staged by Actor's Theatre. It's also déjà vu for Miller with Three Bone at Duke Energy Theater, where he was Martin, the most promising writing student in the acerbic Seminar last August.
"Trigorin in Stupid F@#%ing Bird was a joy to play because he's one of those characters that knows how sleazy he is and revels in it," Miller says. "Danny is the most troubling to play, and the most challenging in many regards. He justifies his prejudices and thinks his self-appointed victimhood gives him license to do more-or-less whatever he wants."
Standing up to such insidious entitlement is a formidable task, and Horton has made a bold choice in casting his Emilie. After returning to the Carolinas from Emerson College in Boston, where she earned a graduate degree in publishing, Lechetze D. Lewis has circled the Q.C. in three previous outings — two in Concord, one in Mooresville — but her role in The Submission will mark her Charlotte debut.
"Lechetze had a fire about her in auditions," Horton recalls. "I knew I had to have someone strong that could more than hold her own against Scott. I took a chance with Lechetze, and boy did it pay off."
Needing to ensure that all four of his cast members felt comfortable with one another at rehearsals, Horton made sure there was plenty of discussion about the issues that Talbott's script addresses. Yes, there were disagreements as the cast talked things out, but professionalism has prevailed.
"The play deals with LGBT rights, racism, discrimination, affirmative action, non-traditional casting and who has the right to say or do things when it comes to someone else's identity or culture," Horton says. "All of these issues are pretty hot right now in America — we are more divided now that we have been in recent years. The thing that strikes me most, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do this play, is it deals with these issues in the arts community. We as artists like to think of ourselves as being all-accepting and non-judgmental. Are we really?"
With such questions floating in the air, rehearsals can be stressful. In the heat of the moment, hurtful comments hurled in your face by a fellow actor addressing your fictional character can still hurt. Identifying with Emilie as a black artist, as Lewis must, she can hardly be invulnerable when the conflict with Danny has so much relevance to her daily life and self-image.
"Something that really gets to me is his idea that black actors who win awards don't deserve to win what was created for whites," Lewis says. "As an artist, I hope that any awards I receive will be acknowledged as something that my hard work has earned... but Danny doesn't see it that way. Scott is an amazing actor to work with and he definitely doesn't hold these views, but he's talented enough to make those words sting. I am so lucky to be working with an actor who takes the time to check in on how we're both feeling and if we're okay to move forward."
Horton has also been helpful for Lewis, frequently reminding her that she does win in the end. Conversations with Miller and the other two cast members, Dan Grogan and Daniel Henry, about how the script has affected them personally have been doubly beneficial for Lewis — not only soothing her emotions but helping her to shape her performance.
Of course, Emilie also dishes out a harsh word or two.
"I will admit to having a bit of fear regarding how she'll be perceived," Lewis confides, "because so much of what she says is hypocritical. But it doesn't mean that, in some aspects, she's completely wrong."
Horton has another succinct comment about the intensity of the crossfire in The Submission: "Thank God for the comedy in this show — it makes it palatable."
Talbott doesn't turn on the heat immediately. There's a certain point, says Miller, when the tone begins to change. Even then, there's a gradual crescendo leading up to the inevitable fireworks between Danny and Emilie. Along the way, we realize that Talbott's farcical plotline isn't going to play out strictly for laughs.
At the same time, the playwright is turning his telltale mirror toward us. There will likely be a recoil factor when we recognize ourselves.
"While watching The Submission," Miller cautions, "many people will agree with some of the controversial things the characters say. I predict several lines will get a chuckle before the audience realizes the inappropriateness of the character's comment. The play is not out to condemn or chastise anyone in the audience. But I think – or hope – it will make many think about their implicit and explicit biases."