Derisive views of academia have been a staple of the stage ever since Aristophane's The Clouds. In this century, dramatized teachers have ranged from heroic (Goodbye Mr. Chips) to flawed (Oleanna) to heroically flawed (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), though current trends suggest that academicians inhabit a slightly lower moral universe than invertebrates. Young playwright Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter, now being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, owes a structural debt to earlier works but is defiantly modern, using the vocabulary and affect of the diversity-conscious '90s.
In this smart psychological thriller, central character Sarah Daniels is new to her job as dean of students at Belmont, a small and overwhelmingly white college nestled in rural Vermont. She seems to love her position, and the greater resources, bottomless scholarship funds and apparently agreeable institutional philosophy provide opportunities to help students. It's a big change from her last posting at an underfunded and predominantly African-American school in Chicago. Belmont colleague and Sarah's onetime lover, art-history professor Ross Collins, tells her: "We pride ourselves on our inclusiveness." But when does inclusiveness end and condescension begin?
Gilman's thoroughly plausible and compelling tapestry of academic archetypes is stitched with petit-point accuracy. For these archetypes, the dividing line between acceptance and abhorrence is as thin as a razor and quicker to cut. The play begins at the dawn of the academic year, fall semester. Shy and reclusive Simon, one of the few black students at Belmont, has received anonymous racist screeds, some of them violent, others evoking "Little Black Sambo," which contributes the play's title. What can and should the administration do?
Forums, discussions, committees -- all the armaments of bureaucracy are brandished in this elaborate and intricate drama, in which Simon never appears -- or needs to.
Sarah has her own problems -- she's overly eager to help "Newyurican" student ("student of color," he's quick to remind her) Patrick Chibas, which occasions a backfiring scholarship and resulting embarrassment. Factor in her combusted relationship with Collins, who only took up a dalliance when his longtime partner was on sabbatical, and everything is topsy-turvy by the time Sarah delivers her lengthy and much-written-about monologue in which she admits to her own racism. This is a dynamite speech, but there's plenty of TNT elsewhere in the script.
Some really fine direction from Scott Zigler adds to the complexity of the Rep's production, which is an engrossing pleasure in every aspect. And the casting is dead-on. Cheryl Gaysunas' Sarah is a thin, intellectually intense type, and her mystified and then aggravated response to being run roughshod over by the other academics is exquisitely calibrated. She spends much of her time pacing and hugging her elbows, yet she manages to alter the inflection of these gestures as the plot unfolds. As guardians of the status quo, Ross Bickell and Giulia Pagano as Dean Burton and Dean Catherine are heartlessly perfect, and their pettiness isn't overmanaged. Timothy McCracken's Ross actually deepens as the play unfolds -- at first, he's a two-timing putz -- yet McCracken imbues him with surprising depth. Hardy Rawls brings understated humanitarianism to the character of security chief Mr. Meyers. Antonio Edwards Suarez and Dallas A. Amsden, as students Patrick and Greg, deliver finely nuanced performances. Suarez plays cautious enthusiasm well, yet never becomes too shrill as his character is manipulated. And Amsden plays Greg, a suburban prince on the make, with surprising subtlety, given the character's about-face.
Few black artists have straddled the divide between plantation past and mainstream acceptance as well as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Equally adept in "hearthside" dialect and formal iam, Dunbar was, and is, without peer in American letters. The son of former slaves, he was raised mostly by his mother, Matilda, in Dayton, Ohio. She recognized her son's remarkable abilities early on, and he began publishing poetry and essays in his teens, though making a decent living was a more difficult endeavor. (Among his employers were Frederick Douglass and the Library of Congress.) He had plenty of encouragement, but he worked for every bit of it.
His correspondence with Alice Ruth Moore, a gently bred Creole from New Orleans, began after he saw her work (and picture) in a Boston magazine. They married in 1898, but within the decade he was dead, presumably of tuberculosis. He and Alice had had a somewhat stormy relationship, although he respected her work as a writer and critic. One part Vera Nabokov, two parts George Sand, Alice is the real cipher in the equation. A remarkable love story, fused with the advancement of a race and a tale of suffrage, could be drawn from the lives of these two brilliant people.
Unfortunately, this draft of Kathleen McGhee-Anderson's Oak and Ivy, now having its world premiere with the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, isn't it. The story structure is in place -- the problem is simply one of sprawl.
Part of the trouble is the exposition, which reiterates information without developing or deepening it. For example, Alice tells her cultured girlfriends she's off to meet this famous/notorious poet, and they gush and admonish and gush and admonish some more. Much better is the cute face-to-face meeting between Alice and Paul. Both are so overcome by their emotions that they have to interrupt the conversation, whip out their notebooks and write furiously for future reference. But such theatrical concision is rare.
We know there will be tension between Paul's mother and Alice, but we see it over and over again in a series of labored exchanges having to do with Alice's inability to be a housewife and Matilda's conviction that a woman's place is at the stove or the iron. Worse, Alice seems to become a suffragist without once referring to fellow writers and protesters of the day. It's almost as if the Dunbars exist in a vacuum, circling one another with the same stale complaints.
Director Ron Himes has done some snappy staging with, Lord help us, 34 separate scenes (played on a two-level set). His top-flight cast includes Eric J. Conners as a splendid Dunbar -- just right as one part rake and one part oblivious mama's boy. His transformation from serious poet to darkie bard, when he recites the chilling and lapidary "We Wear the Mask" to a train porter (a scene that could end the show beautifully) is simply astonishing. Conners' entire body contorts and his voice flexes, and his grin is mechanically apt. As Alice, Cherita Armstrong plays exasperation and coyness well, and she's thoroughly believable as the distracted poet forced into societally sanctioned female subservience. Marjorie Johnson's Matilda has a steely presence, even while she's coddling her son, and one wishes the flashback sequences, in which she recollects being shamed by her white mistress, added more to the storyline. Marsha Cann, as loyal friend Fanny, brightens her scenes, and supporting cast members J. Samuel Davis, Christopher Hickey, Monica Parks Simon and Christine Anthony are all fine. Despite my caveats about the script, it's clear that playwright McGhee-Anderson has an excellent and moving play in progress about a unique confluence of American social and literary history.