Systematic oppression, political correctness, cultural consciousness, color-blindness, minority majority, illegal aliens, a post-racial society.
I’ve heard and discussed these concepts before, but never in a performance arts show.
Baltimore, written by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Leslie Felbain and showcased by UMD School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies premiered Feb. 26 in the Kay Theatre The play focuses on Shelby Wilson, played by junior theatre major Summer Brown, a frustrated Resident Assistant in a college residence hall struggling with an incident of racism on her floor.
Through the projections of images on the screen, an offensive drawing of a black girl is revealed. It was placed on the door of a student, Alyssa, played by junior theatre major Agyeiwaa Asante. News of the incident quickly spreads through the small college via social media, and it ignites a series of discussions and confrontations.
Are there different levels of racism? What is the definition of it—does it vary from person to person?
Part of the Big Ten New Play Initiative, which features plays from different women playwrights, Baltimore explores communication.
The play ended with a push to start the conversation, so forceful that the minute it ended, I turned to my friend and began discussing what we just saw.
But how do you start a dialogue when the topic is so complex? Numerous factors influence a person’s actions and language, including their families, neighborhoods and professions.
The play features a Pandora’s box of characters. You have Wilson, who believes we live in a “post-racial society.” She refuses to put labels on the action or acknowledge the true foundation of the problem until the tension explodes and she is forced to confront it.
There’s the defensive Fiona, the character who drew the offensive caricature and repeats “it was all a joke” as her peers demand answers. Actress Mikala Nuccio flawlessly portrays Fiona and conveyed the thoughts of someone who does not understand the magnitude of their actions.
Fiona is a white girl from “the hood”—due to gentrification. As a result, she believes she is just like Bryant, played by senior theatre major Avery Collins, the African-American man she is in infatuated with.
Comments such as, “in the summer, my skin color is just like yours,” and how minorities have “to deal with it,” poured out of her mouth, which were cringe-worthy but not surprising.
Collins’ performance was effective and familiar, especially when he talked about the first time he saw his parents treated unfairly by the police and how he feels suffocated around people of his own race because of the memories it unearths.
Watching the play, the audience explicitly realizes that racism is not exclusive—you can be a person of color and still have a discriminatory lense against another race or ethnicity, or intentionally ignore it.
No one wants to stand up and say, “I am racist.”
But what Baltimore addresses is we might not want to “think about it all the time,” that race fuels many aspects of our world.
Education, prison systems, job markets, real estate, politics. All of these contribute to the oppression of marginalized communities.
I have never before experienced a performance where such a variety of ethnicities, political ideologies, sexual orientations and economic classes were addressed.
The play even addressed people who are multiracial, the stereotypes of Latinas, how some firmly believed they are “color-blind” and how Westernization has shaped the perception other cultures have on body image. This was exemplified by Grace, depicted by junior theatre performance and family sciences major Kristen El Yaouti, a Filipino woman whose family criticized her physical features.
The college setting and the dynamics of the relationships, whether it was Shelby’s comedic mentor-like interactions with the first black dean of the university, performed by senior theatre performance and history major Philip Kershaw, or the conversations between students in the cafeteria, made it familiar and easy to connect with.
The cast fully understands the vitality of Baltimore, having taken a semester-long course in preparation, working intimately with the messages of the play, the multiple races and identities they would embody.
In order to make progress, the key lies in unlearning and annihilating ignorance, so the first step is to talk and communicate.
Start the conversation by seeing Baltimore at The Clarice until March 5.
Featured Photo Credit: Kristen El Yaouti, Summer Brown, Avery Collins, Jessica Schultz, Whitney Geohagan, Rebecca Mount and Mikala Nuccio finally confront the racist incident in their college (Photo taken by Stan Barouh)
Karla Casique is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.