Spinning Into Butter
Midway through Rebecca Gilman’s “Spinning Into Butter,” the play’s troubled heroine, named Sarah Daniels, does something no college administrator would dream of doing in these pc times: she confesses to being a racist. Not the white-sheeted sort you might find on Jerry Springer, or a zealot running an Aryan Nation website; in fact, you’d hardly suspect it at all. In her position as Dean of Students at a small, prestigious Vermont college she seems wholly supportive of the small contingent of multi-cultural students in her charge, even finding ways for minority students to get scholarships. She may push them a bit into her line of thinking, as she does a student named Patrick Chavez who insists upon calling himself “Nuyorican” while Sarah insists he use the term “Hispanic” or “Latino” in a scholarship application; but her liberal heart is clearly in the right place.
Yet in her speech – a dazzling piece of writing on Gilman’s part – she acknowledges her own casual and commonplace racism, the sort that leads her to judge who she’s to sit near on a bus based on the color of the skin; or fall victim to stereotypes of African-Americans; even acknowledging that she doesn’t like (gasp) Toni Morrison. Though by and large she explains her racism extends to a small minority of blacks: “the ones who seemed exceptionally awful, loud and belligerent and abusive” who can’t succeed because they’re “lazy and stupid.” And as she speaks, she breaks down unable to fight her feelings. Perhaps Oscar Hammerstein was right: we’re all carefully taught.
The moment transforms Gilman’s play, breaking down the fourth wall to give her story an uncomfortable pertinence, in effect making her audience co-conspirators in Sarah’s confession. (Hitchcock was famous for doing the same thing in his films, transferring the audience’s sympathies to his on-screen characters no matter how morally questionable they were.)
No doubt the playwright realizes that the audience for her play would largely be very white and very middle-class; as they are in Gloucester. Such is the case with the theater in general: as my companion pointed out at “The Lion King,” there were more black faces on stage than there were in the audience. The theater, then, is very much like the fictional Vermont college (named Belmont) where Gilman sets her play: a prosperous and very white institution far removed from urban tensions.
This sentimentality for a simpler America is what attracted Sarah to leave a job at a multi-racial Chicago school and find shelter in the Green Mountains; but even here she can’t escape the kind-of fractious racial incident that would be right at home an Anna Deveare Smith play. A black student is being harassed with racist epithets; and it falls upon Sarah to make things rights.
It’s a challenge, especially since she she reported the incident to the police, making it public and seriously angering her boss, a staid Yankee-type not known for her racial sensitivity, or sensitivity in general. She simply wants the whole ugly business to go away, and looks to Sarah to make that happen. "You want me to solve racism with a bulleted list?" Sarah asks her at one point.
No doubt the play brings to mind “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s incendiary look at sexual harassment in a college setting; yet it’s only a passing resemblance. “Spinning into Butter” is more like the social dramas of British playwright David Hare – witty, intelligent, thorny, upsetting; if a bit contrived, especially in the way Gilman attempts to present a microcosm of America’s racial divide with her other characters, who include Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, an ineffectual, if sympathetic liberal; and her nemesis, a pompous academic type who seems inspired by Niles Frazier who, nonetheless, provides the play with its central metaphor taken from the much-maligned 1922 book “Little Black Sambo.” For him the student (the unseen Simon Brick) turns out to be like Sambo, harassed by tigers who steal his clothes, then battle over them, chasing each other in circles until they spin into butter. It’s a succinct image, and is delivered with such commanding force by Neil A. Casey as to suggest there’s much more to his sit-commish character than initially met the eye.
Gilman was said to have been inspired to write the play from a racial incident that occurred at her alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont; and the play works well as an indictment of the hypocrisy of institutions more concerned over image than the reality of racism in their institutions. Yet even though only five years old, the play feels dated; the wave of political correctness the play rails against has pretty much crested. When turning on the television brings African-American comics like Dave Chappelle playing blind Klansman, and the cast of “Avenue Q” acknowledges that “everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes,” it seems some of the air has gone out of Gilman’s rhetorical balloon.
But what the play has going for it is Gilman’s sharp ear for dialogue, and the gentle arc she gives the drama that becomes much more Sarah’s journey to self-acceptance than a diatribe against political correctness. Throughout the play she defines herself as a cynic, and it is that cynicism that makes it so easy to objectify: as long as she can’t trust the world, she’ll never see beyond her black-and-white version of it. Yet in the final moments Sarah discovers her humanity; it may seem a bit contrived, but at least the play moves beyond its rhetorical underpinnings.
Eric Engel’s direction serves Gilman’s concerns well, being both provocative and personable at the same time. As he has shown in the past, he has wonderful rapport with actors. Denise Cormier conveys Sarah quick intelligence and pleasant demeanor convincingly, though she tends to over emote, especially during her lengthy speech. It’s difficult to say if this is a problem of the text or the way it is portrayed; but Sarah would be more interesting, if she were less sympathetic; and had the courage of her misplaced convictions. Cormier, though, brings her character strikingly to life.
She gets able support from Nancy E. Carroll, icily perfect as her duplicitous boss; Marc Carver as her liberal colleague who lends a sympathetic ear (and gets quite an earful); the aforementioned Casey who is razor-sharp in the show’s most broad academic caricature; Jared Swanson as the fiery student who spurns Sarah’s help; Risher Reddick as the opportunist student who learns a lesson or two about race relations; and Ray Jenness as the sympathetic campus guard, who presence in the play suggests questions of class that are never addressed. Sarah may rail against a certain segment of the black population, saying they’re “loud and belligerent and abusive, and they walked down the hall in packs;” but her objections are aimed more at individuals you’ll likely see on tabloid TV talk shows; not those who would be seen at a college like Belmont. Perhaps if that real world had found its way onto its campus (in the end, the racism incident turns out to be trumped-up,) the play may have dealt with real issues of at the heart of Sarah’s racism; and not sentimentalize them in an outburst of liberal guilt.
At Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester through August 29. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and at 5 and 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tix $30; $20 for seniors and students. Call 978-281-4433 for more information.