A new comedy about race and reparations can’t stop over-explaining.
The best way to describe Kevin Douglas’s new play Plantation!, directed here by fellow Lookingglass ensemble member David Schwimmer, is as a kind of racism explainer. Concepts like white privilege, reparations, various forms of microaggression, even the grammatical philosophy behind the name Black Lives Matter are all portioned out in simple, easy-to-make arrangements for the audience—a kind of sociological Blue Apron, making the contemporary conversations around racism accessible for the non-thinkpiece set.
The play opens on four wealthy, white Texan women sitting around being simply the worst in a way that lets the audience know that comeuppance is for sure on the menu. Though really, it’s only three of them who are the worst. They’re the adult daughters of Lillian (the always delightful Janet Ulrich Brooks), a classy (if sometimes clueless) Southern belle and widow who’s gathered the family here in the living room (yup) of the estate on their family’s cotton plantation (yup) in order to, get this, make an important announcement.
The daughters are, from oldest to youngest: Kimberly, an “actress” and aspiring reality-TV star (played by Louise Lamson with a permanent stinkface that’s way funnier than it needs to be); Kara (Linsey Page Morton), the anxiety-ridden CEO of the family’s longstanding ailing cotton business; and Kayley (Grace Smith), a recent college dropout who was injured after she tried to have sex on a horse.
The girls are all spoiled, but at least Kara and Kayley are somewhat well-meaning; Kimberly is more like something out of Get Out. Meanwhile, the women are all tended to by Diana (a great Hannah Gomez), the daughter of Lillian’s Guatemalan maid. Diana’s incredulousness to the insanity happening around her is a welcome tonic. She’s the most realistic character by far, which is probably why she gets the least to do.
As it turns out, Lillian has just recently discovered that the family’s almost 200-year-old cotton company, the one that grew cotton on the very plantation on which she and her daughters are standing, used slaves. (Even for farce, making this a new revelation is a stretch.) And now Lillian has invited the descendants of one of those slaves down from Chicago to come stay. She never ends up getting to her real announcement, which is that she plans to give them the entire plantation as an act of reparation.
The show picks up considerably once the guests arrive. They are London (Lily Mojekwu), a life coach; Sydney (Ericka Ratcliff), a Black Lives Matter activist; and Madison (Tamberla Perry), a social media influencer. All three actresses make for great company onstage, even as they are occasionally tasked with holding the white characters’ hands (and, by proxy, those of the white audience members) and explaining, for instance, why it’s not called “Black Lives Matter, Too.”
The conflict in Plantation! mainly comes down to a battle between the two sisterly trios: both want the plantation, only one of them can have it. And while the production’s incredibly broad style of humor—it’s a farce through and through—occasionally strikes true, it’s not enough to justify even a modest 95-minute run time. Neither is Douglas’s script, which deserves credit for not doling out forgiveness where forgiveness isn’t due, yet always settles for the easy joke. When the incredibly insecure Kara is described as suffering from “typical middle-child syndrome” it’s hard not to throw your hands up in despair. Explaining the nuances of racism and reparations is one thing (god forbid someone go to the theater and actually learn something new), but do they have to explain the jokes as well?
Lookingglass Theatre Company. By Kevin Douglas. Directed by David Schwimmer. With Janet Ulrich Brooks, Louise Lamson, Ericka Ratcliff, Hannah Gomez, Lily Mojekwu, Linsey Page Morton, Tamberla Perry, Grace Smith. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.