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Spinning Into Butter
Sarah's dealings with Patrick and the response by her and her colleagues to overtly racist letters sent to one of the college's African-American students, pushes all the unspoken hot buttons of racism in today's society. Ms. Gilman offers no solution to the issues most people would rather not talk about. Political correctness and public forums are seen as further signs of the hypocrisy overhanging race relations. The only possibility towards looking the racial dilemma squarely in the eye is to start being open and honest with ourselves and, instead of giving lip service to tolerance in public discussions, examining and exposing our true feelings in nonthreatening one on one situations.
As a writer, Ms. Gilman is herself guilty of a form of political correctness, in that she seems to lean over backward to make each character fully representative of a point of view. Sarah's long monologue addressed to a campus teacher and friend, Ross Collins (Daniel Jenkins), makes for visceral high drama. Ross' inability to have an honest love relationship with Sarah or his other girl friend, nicely echoes the phoniness of his liberal arts theories. Sarah's briefer truth telling is equally effective in terms of dialogue as well as meaning -- especially her defiant declaration that she hates the much loved writer Toni Morisson and in fact thinks that, Nobel Prize notwithstanding, her books "suck." By never letting us see the black student whose hate mail stirs up the tranquil New England campus and proves to be the play's chief and not particularly surprising plot twist, the playwright reinforces the fact that this is a play about white people's inability and/or unwillingness to deal with their attitudes towards minorities.
The much disdained 1922 children's book from which the play takes its title, The Story of Little Black Sambo makes for an effective metaphor. (In case you're unfamiliar with the story, it is about a group of tigers stealing the new clothes of a little black boy named Sambo and threatening to eat him. Their victim forgotten, they start fighting over who looks best in the stolen clothes and chase each other around a tree so fast that end up spinning themselves into a puddle of melted butter).
Generally speaking, the pleasure of seeing a new play that is not afraid to force us to reflect on it long after it ends, far outweigh any weaknesses in structure and emphasis. That pleasure is strengthened by Hope Davis' rich and utterly sympathetic performance as Sarah. The other six actors are also excellent, particularly Brenda Wehle and Henry Strozier as two lip service tolerant Deans and Patrick Chibas as the Puerto Rican student who resents Sarah's good intentions.
Director Daniel Sullivan has apparently and rightly encouraged some cutting since the play now clocks in at a half hour less than originally announced. Sarah's office in which the play unfolds, is handsomely modern design by John Lee Beatty, with Brian MacDevitt apt lighting to show the shift of time.
Spinning Into Butter is being presented as part of the Lincoln Center Summer 2000 Festival. That means a limited run with far too few New Yorkers and New York visitors likely to see it. Fortunately, the play has already been booked into numerous regional theaters. If you don't live in New York, you'll no doubt be able to catch it in one of the numerous regional theaters where, even without the current cast, it is sure to stimulate all who view the theater as a place to be challenged and, sometimes, deeply disturbed.