A well-intentioned play has its say at Barrington Stage Company
PITTSFIELD — Playwright Rachel Lynett takes on a lot in her new play, "Well Intentioned White People," more than she can handle, it would seem, judging from the well-acted, if stylistically conflicted, world premiere her well intentioned play is having at Barrington Stage Company's St. Germain Stage.
Lynett's play focuses on a young academically accomplished black female college professor named Cass (Myxolydia Tyler in a striking, finely tuned, roiling performance), a member of the arts faculty at a small liberal arts college in a "hip and liberal town in a red state ... . Maybe Austin or Orlando or [Lynett's native] Northwest Arkansas," Lynett writes in the introductory pages of her manuscript. Cass' academic specialty is the literature and art of the African diaspora with a particular focus on the Caribbean. She is on a tenure track.
And then, her well-ordered life begins to come apart. She has broken up — "or at least it feels like we did," she tells her best friend, Parker (a credible Samy el-Nouri), a transgender professor at the same college — with her still-roommate, Viv (an engaging Victoria Frings), a thirtysomething white activist who is all-too-eager to display her concern for the socially vixctimized and marginalized. Her latest cause is planning a fundraiser for LGBT homeless kids.
"They're literally going to homeless shelters and kind of just asking 'Hey, are you gay? Are you sure? What about you?'" Cass cynically remarks during a conversation with Parker.
Despite Viv's and Parker's urgings, Cass is determined to do the least possible in response. She doesn't trust the police and she wants to steer clear of the college administration.
With her tenure interview imminent, "I just don't want this to mess with everything I've worked so hard for," Cass tells Parker, who, as a transgender male, experienced difficulties while he was transitioning at a previous college.
"Honestly," he tells Cass, "if anything the college will love this."
"It's an attack," he elaborates a few minutes later. "And people love this sorta s---. They have a chance to rally behind a person of color and plan protests and marches and talk about how they understand what microaggression is now. Protesting is the new brunch for white people."
That hypocrisy burns Cass. She acknowledges to Parker there are times she wishes she were in a place "where people are homophobic and racist and the challenge is educating people. I just feel it's either blatantly racist people or the safe space, safety pin wearing 'I don't see color' people. I would rather the racist people."
"The safety pin people aren't the people who were doing the lynchings," Parker replies.
"No," Cass responds. "They were just the people who let it happen."
As it turns out, Viv adds another safety pin to her sleeve when, frustrated by Cass' reluctance to take action, she gives an unauthorized interview to a newspaper reporter. The newspaper account, which doesn't mention Cass by name, nevertheless draws the attention of Cass' boss, Dean West (Andrea Cirie in a performance that uncomfortably straddles the line between caricature and character; more a function of Lynett's writing and Tiffany Nichole Greene's direction), who comes to Cass and, by way of demonstrating the college's concern over the incident, tells Cass the college is planning a diversity day in response and then throws responsibility for planning and organizing the event on her. Moreover, she pressures Cass into giving the keynote speech.
Before "Well Intentioned People" runs its course, that one diversity day will expand into a full week of activity; Cass' tenure will come under pressure; she will face escalating attacks on her car; and she will be pressed by a student named Mara (perhaps the play's most layered character, played with chilling conviction by Cathryn Ware), who, when Cass rejects her insistent bid to be admitted into her advanced African art class without having met the prerequisites, levels a complaint of racism against Cass on the grounds that she was denied admittance into the course because she is white.
Clearly, Lynett has a good deal on her mind; too much. "Well Intentioned White People" wanders in a thematic and stylistic wilderness. The play often feels like a catalog of grievances and loses focus in the process. "Well Intentioned People" is at its best when it is at its most intimate and personal; when Lynett's concerns play out within a human context, most notably Cass' scenes with Viv, especially at the end when, toting all the heavy baggage of their complicated relationship, the two, with all the best of intentions, work at achieving something between close friends and lovers.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at 413-496-6212 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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