Reviewed by George Basler
The need to break through the reluctance to discuss racial issues and honestly hear others’ stories is a main theme of Baltimore, a provocative new play by Kirsten Greenidge that opened March 1 in the Watters Theater of Binghamton University’s Fine Arts Building.
The play, being presented by BU’s Department of Theater, is a difficult and uneven one. Greenidge’s writing is obtuse at times while being sharply on point and incisive at others.
However, even when the action becomes muddled, the members of the multi-racial BU cast bring real passion and skill to their roles as students seeking to define themselves as individuals while dealing with larger societal forces around them.
Greenridge, an African-American playwright now based in Boston, has attracted considerable attention for plays including Luck of the Irish, Splendor and Milk Like Sugar. She wrote Baltimore after being commissioned to do so by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative for women playwrights.
The action of the play takes place at an unnamed university where a student has posted a racially insensitive drawing on a dormitory room door. The student insists it’s a joke, but the posting prompts a heated debate about racism on the campus.
In the debate, students break into roughly two camps: those who have strong feelings about racial identity and those who want to steer clear of the topic or believe America is a “post-racial” society.
Along the way, all the characters expose their back stories in monologues that touch on race, class, gender and generational issues.
The monologues are intense ones that are well played by the BU students under the effective direction of Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., a senior lecturer in acting at Cornell University’s Department of Performing and Media Arts.
Simmons skillfully stages the action so that it never becomes static. The actors move about a simple set with boxes used as chairs while whiteboards with drawings highlight when the action is taking place. The racial caricature gets exposed at one point as well, and the effect is jarring.
The play has its weak moments. One unfortunately comes right at the beginning when one of the students fumbles through an interview with the university’s new African-American dean who is a prominent civil rights advocate. The scene is supposed to be funny, but it falls flat.
Indeed, Baltimore’s action is confusing at first, and the play takes a while to get going. Greenridge throws a lot of issues into the mix — maybe too many to be absorbed at one time.
The student actors deserve a great deal of credit for taking on this challenging work. Their passion and commitment to the material carries the play even in its slack moments. The actors are Savannah Young, Klaire Martinez, Mayah Wells, Xiaoke (Kira) Jia, Amelia Pena, Robert Edwards, Connor Brannigan, Brianna Simpkins and Liz Sierra.
While it’s not perfect, Baltimore probes some difficult and relevant topics. Greenidge provides no pat answers or easy conclusions to the issues that she raises. But, in an interview, she has said we are at a moment where we are perhaps … examining how we got here, how we interact with one another and wondering, hoping, working to better.
In Baltimore’s final scene the students seem to be working to get better. They drop any pretenses and begin to listen each other’s stories. They seem ready for an open discussion, and that’s hopeful.
IF YOU GO: Final performances of Baltimore are at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday (March 9 and 10); a talk-back is planned after tonight’s performance. Tickets are $10 for BU students; $16 for BU faculty, staff, alumni and seniors; and $18 for the general public. Call 777-ARTS or visit binghamton.edu/theatre.