Carlyle Meyers (an ingratiating James Earl Jones II), an attorney for the Republican Party, has at the behest of his employers taken up the Goodman Theatre’s call for insight into the phenomenon of the African-American Republican. (More prominent figures, including Condoleeza Rice, Clarence Thomas and Tim Scott, turned down the request, we’re told.) Carlyle intends to show us his own journey as a play within the play, staged with the help of his wife, Janice (Tiffany Scott), his father (Tim Edward Rhoze) and his college roommate (Levenix Riddle), along with some hired actors.
The metatheatrical device is a fitting move for playwright Thomas Bradshaw, who likes to say that his plays have no subtext. Giving over Carlyle’s explicit point of view to its title character and making the other characters simply actors allows Bradshaw to focus on his real interest, incensing adherents to both the Republican and Democratic parties with straw man arguments and shots at easy targets. Young Carlyle, a well-off scion of all-white environments, never questions his place in life until a handful of other black students are brought into his private prep school, on scholarship from “the ghetto,” leading present-day Carlyle to interrogate ideas of “authentic” blackness. When Carlyle is admitted to Harvard, a white classmate suggests he was given preferential treatment because of his race; his internal conflict leads him to the epiphany that he is (gasp) a Republican.
It’s all somehow thorny and facile at the same time. Introducing Janice, who is white, Carlyle tells us the real reason for the civil rights movement was so black men would be able to have sex with white women. When he and his father meet Janice’s whitebread parents, a mention of concealed-carry laws leads to everyone unholstering and comparing the guns they’re packing around the dinner table. An odd centerpiece has Carlyle trying to exonerate his idol, Justice Thomas, by presenting a number of scenarios in which his mention of a pubic hair on his Coke can might have been innocent or, in fact, nefariously instigated by Anita Hill.
On Monday night, this sequence inadvertently demonstrated the flaw in Bradshaw’s aim. One audience member, who’d been demonstrating her approval of Carlyle’s more conservative statements against busing and affirmative action with frequent applause, loudly heckled Charlette Speigner, the actor playing an actor playing Hill, as if she was shouting at the TV. Rather than serving as a subversive satire of black conservatism or an equal-opportunity skewering of both sides, Bradshaw is provoking the presumedly liberal theater audience while presenting a certain kind of conservative audience with a black character telling them everything they want to hear.
Goodman Theatre. By Thomas Bradshaw. Directed by Benjamin Kamine. With James Earl Jones II, Tiffany Scott, Tim Edward Rhoze, Levenix Riddle, Charlette Speigner, Patrick Clear, Nate Whelden, Maureen Gallagher. Running time: 1hr 15mins; no intermission.