A Raisin In The Salad: Black Plays For White People
nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
August 13, 2010
I am confused.
I have many questions after seeing A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People. What do characters do when their playwright abandons them? Can a playwright ever hope to name his characters, to really represent them? Is a playwright – a black playwright, a white playwright—able to write honestly about his or her characters or do stereotypes always get in the way? What is a "black play"? What makes a play "for white people"? What stereotypes of black and white people do I hold onto with or without my consent? What does it mean when the characters in a play are called Black Boy, Black Girl, White Lady, White Girl, and White Boy?
My confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. Kevin R. Free's play is, as it turns out, a play about confusion. At the top of the show, Kevin R. Free (played by Lelund Durond Thompson) introduces himself to the audience and tells us that he has been writing too many black plays for white people. He can't do it anymore. He needs to get to the bottom of it. This is his last play. White Lady (Charlotte Cohn) then enters and he tells her he is done writing for her. He admits that he can't even name her. She says that she knows him better than he knows her. He calls out Black Boy (Christopher Burris) and Black Girl (Jennifer Nikki Kidwell) and they give her jewelry.
What follows is a collection of about 25 short sketches, demonstrating the playwright's struggle to work out his portrayal of black and white characters. He sometimes pushes the stereotypes of the characters to an extreme and sometimes tries to get beyond the stereotypes. He explores the relationships between the characters. His characters meta-theatrically talk to him, and he talks directly to the audience.
Sound cerebral? Well, it is kind of cerebral, but it's not only cerebral. It's also entertaining, bizarre, evocative, and often hilariously funny.
Some of the sketches employ stuff we've seen before: Black Boy serving up cookies on a tray to the white characters; White Boy (Nicholas Job) having the dream but not the ability to rap; White Girl (Samantha Debicki) entering with Ann Taylor and Tiffany shopping bags; Black Girl singing backup as Black Boy raps. Some sketches are harder to figure out, like "The Color Blind Side" in which White Lady delivers a sexually toned monologue to a lettuce plant. (I don't want to give it all away, but I want to give you an idea.) My favorite parts are when the playwright talks directly to the characters, as when he talks to Black Boy about writing "for you" and how he sees himself as both the same as and different from Black Boy. Also, I admire that the playwright indicts himself by not noticing—but having Black Girl notice—that he and Black Boy often abandon her.
The set is simple, just a few chairs, a desk, and an easel with title cards introducing the different sketches. The director, Christopher Burris (who also plays Black Boy), pulls totally committed performances out of the actors and moves it along at a quick pace.
Over all, Free's piece is thought-provoking and entertaining: a winner even if—like his inner conflict and like all of our struggles of getting beyond racial stereotypes—we don't always know the answers to the questions it provokes.