Spinning Into Butter

By - Aug 1st, 2008 02:52 pm
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By Jill Gilmer

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Every once in a while, a play comes along that reminds us why we love independent theatre. Bold. High-energy. Daring. Provocative. Transforming. Pink Banana’s Spinning Into Butter is such a play.

Award-winning playwright Rebecca Gilman has created a fresh examination of the usually taboo subject of race by peeking into the lives of four faculty members at a liberal arts college in Vermont. Spinning Into Butter follows the administration’s attempts to quell the firestorm that erupts on campus after an African American student receives a string of hate mail at his dormitory. The story centers on Dean Sarah Daniels, a self-described cynic who came to Vermont to escape black people and the intense emotional turmoil they elicit in her. The climax of the play is a 20-minute monolog in which Sarah reveals her true feelings about blacks – a toxic mix of guilt, loathing, compassion, anger, empathy and disgust.

The play presents a rare look at the attitudes of educated whites toward race. Through a series of conversations that take place in Sarah’s office, we observe myriad attitudes toward minorities and the actions that emanate from them. What is interesting is that these conversions take place almost exclusively between the administrators, a fact at the core of the racial problems on campus. Indeed, there is only one minority character in the play. Instead of seeing the minorities with its own eyes, we hear about them through dialog between white people. Through this dialog, we learn that minority students feel talked about, talked around and talked down to by the administration – everything except talked with. The administration’s lack of genuine understanding and respect for these students leads to adverse consequences for the students and aggravates the campus’ racial problem.

In one of several scenes that are rich with insight, Sarah accuses one of her colleagues of idolizing a homeless man on the bus. She says: you see him as many things, but none of them is “peer.”

The genius of this play is its gentle probing into the antidote for racial conflict. Gillman suggests that the solution lies in forging real relationships between people of differing backgrounds. This requires less talking and more listening among all parties. It allows for all of us to hold racial biases, which is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. But the real tragedy is when we focus our energy on ourselves and our self-interests as opposed to attempting to get to know another group on a personal level. It’s a solution that can be applied to conflicts of all kinds.

Pink Banana brings Spinning Into Butter to the stage on a shoestring budget, but uses its resources wisely. The Tenth Street Theater, housed in a church, provides an appropriately prim backdrop for its New England college setting. Set details reveal little about location, encouraging the audience to resist the temptation to dismiss the disturbing messages as unique to a particular time or place.

The cast is as passionate about the play’s theme as its superb writing and directing team. What the cast lacks in experience they more than make up for in heart. Kara Mulrooney delivers a perfectly balanced performance as the strong and emotionally fragile Sarah. James Boland plays the quirky Dean Strauss with the right amount of intellectual disaffection. Kelli Korducki stops just short of stealing scenes with her icy portrayal of Dean Catherine Kenney, while Patrick Chibas, the “Nuyorican” student does a commendable job portraying the difficult balance between respect for authority and respect for self. VS

Spinning Into Butter ran from July 17-26 at the Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th Street. For more information about Pink Banana Theatre, visit them online.

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