Smile Politely

It depends on what you’re listening for

Growing up in Champaign in the 1980s and 90s and attending schools with children from varying races, cultures, and socioeconomic status, I had a firm belief that racism in modern society was a myth. I was so oblivious to issues of race that, upon seeing Do the Right Thing for the first time, I publicly revealed my distaste for the acting of “the guy who played Mookie” (you know, SPIKE LEE?).

My belief that racism was a myth quickly dissipated after teaching in Washington, DC, where I witnessed the current racial segregation in our nation’s public schools, read Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation, and experienced very public racism toward my students—at the National Holocaust Museum, no less.

Ah, yes, racism and racial discrimination are alive and well in America. So I guess you could understand my reluctance to see a play that, among other things, seeks to humanize racism.

White People, written by J.T. Rogers and now playing at the Station Theatre, does delve into racial issues, as its title suggests, but it also explores connected issues, including: entitlement, appearance, sexism, guilt, and even cowardice. Director Joel Higgins set the bar for himself very high in his first directorial outing for the Station, and this production is put together almost flawlessly, from the acting and set to every lighting and sound cue.

Set designer Christina Renner sets the tone masterfully with a set that perfectly evokes each character’s background. Renner divides the Station’s small stage into three areas, one for each of the characters. What stands out is the set’s universality; the audience is able to picture the reality of the suggested areas: a corner office, a homey kitchen, a well-manicured public park. However, the effectiveness of the set is somewhat undermined by the presence of KKK-esque robes affixed to the back wall on both sides of the stage. Although they present a powerful image, they also seem a little too ethereal for such a realistic play.

As Alan Harris, David Kierski portrays a man so stifled by political correctness that he has difficulty communicating clearly. Kierski gives the audience a raw, honest performance, the climax of which will not soon be forgotten.

Playing the role of Martin Bahmueller, local Mike ‘N Molly’s proprietor Michael Murphy presents a stiff, set-in-his-ways businessman who believes strongly in the power of appearance. His lines are delivered with authority and force, especially when he says, “This is America. This is how we dress. This is how we speak.” You may not agree with him, but Murphy’s performance is so convincing you’d be afraid to let him know you disagree.

As the third character, a Southern wife and mother named Mara Lynn Dodson, Shawna Smith leaves her usual behind-the-scenes work and steps on stage to extraordinary effect. Smith’s acting at the performance I attended was so effective that I had that rarest and most wonderful of theatre experiences: the uncomfortable seat disappeared, the people around me ceased to matter, and I was completely captivated. Smith is a full-body performer: her performance transcends vocal delivery and travels into her arms, legs, and probably her toes. Truly impressive and memorable.

J. Malia Andrus has provided the actors with wonderful costumes that perfectly fit each role: Martin’s business suit is spot-on, down to the white shirtcollar, the tie tack, and the cufflinks. Alan Harris is the picture of an anthropology professor, complete with elbow pads on his tweed jacket and a weathered, brown leather shoulder bag. Even Mara Lynn Dodson’s laundry (which she neatly folds throughout the play) perfectly fits the tone.

There are limitations to a play whose characters never interact, and you may find yourself asking, “Who in the world are these people talking to?” However, because of the high calibre production, little else will distract you. White People is a play that you need to see with someone, because you will definitely want to talk about it afterward.

White People continues at the Station Theatre in Urbana through Saturday, October 19. All shows begin at 8:00 p.m., and you can reserve seats through the Station website or by calling 217-384-4000.

photos by Wes Pundt

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