Goodman Theatre. By Tracey Scott Wilson. Directed by Jessica Thebus. With Eric Lynch, Lee Stark, Shane Kenyon. 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
In an early scene of Tracey Scott Wilson’s thoughtful and engaging take on the ineffable complexities of race, class, gentrification and much more at this American moment, African-American lawyer Jackson teases his white high-school teacher girlfriend about her future writing a bestselling book about her influence on a class of rowdy, needy inner-city students, and who will play her in the movie.
Jackson, who grew up in a rough New York neighborhood but made it to Harvard Law, subtly slams both Hollywood’s vision of at-risk students’ salvation and more grassroots ideas of empowerment, like slam poetry competitions. Without naming them, and in the space of a couple of lines, he dredges up the feel-good likes of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers to mock them from his place of rooted authenticity, even as he derides the kind of idealism depicted in the Chicago doc Louder Than a Bomb from a comfortable seat of elitist remove.
A few scenes later, his girlfriend Suzy tries to razz herself in the same vein: “Oh God, I sound like one of those nice white-lady teachers in the movies.” And yet there’s a palpable tension between the way it sounds in Suzy’s mouth versus Jackson’s. That friction is at the heart of Wilson’s smart take on our “post-racial” times in Jessica Thebus’s engrossing Goodman staging.
Jackson (Eric Lynch) has made the pretty unilateral decision that not only should he and Suzy (Lee Stark) move in together, they should move into his old neighborhood, where they can be on the front lines of gentrification—and he can exorcise some childhood demons he clearly hasn’t dealt with well. (The setting is New York, though it hardly matters; imagine any run-down neighborhood on the verge of a forced influx of affluence.) Suzy, with some trepidation about the ’hood’s current state, agrees out of love and principle.
It’s here that Wilson introduces the unlikely wild card: Behind Suzy’s back, Jackson offers to let his lifelong pal and recovering addict Don (Shane Kenyon), who’s white and comes from money but spent a rough couple of high-school years living here with Jackson and his mom, stay with them in the new condo. Back story about the trio’s fraught history is ready to boil over from the moment Don appears.
And this is Buzzer's notable alchemy: The improbable personal-relationship story could easily feel too soapy (as the playwright acknowledges, winkingly if a wee bit too late), and the social-issues talk could veer into the didactic. But Wilson, Thebus and the Goodman’s spot-on cast strike the right balance to allow us engage with serious, complex questions of authenticity, agency and whether biases of all stripes can be earned and/or owned, precisely thanks to the charged triad of flawed but frustratingly relatable characters the questions are hung on.
Stark nicely communicates Suzy's discomfort in reckoning with her discomfort, while Lynch persuasively sells Jackson's deeply divided feelings about his roots. Kenyon, meanwhile, imbues Don with enough nervy charm that you almost believe the doubtful circumstances of this living arrangement. But while this and other elements of Wilson’s script can feel awfully facile and convenient, it drops us off in an area worth exploring from all sides.