Monday, September 24, 2012

Past and Present

Park Square Theatre's "American Family" is a classic example of the difficulties of writing a play about racial issues

It’s been a very bluesy spring.
On the heels of the Minnesota Historical Society’s extremely popular 1968exhibit come a spate of plays focused on race and music in the mid-twentieth century American South. Hairsprayis on an extended run in Chanhassen;Memphis just swung through the Ordway; even the Walker jumped into the game with Marc Joseph Balthumi’s contemporary version, red, black & GREEN.
And now we have American Family at Park Square Theatre.
American Family differs somewhat from its thematic siblings by 1) removing music from the narrative and 2) giving its heroine an overtly racist past. The story centers on Mary Ellen’s return to the playground of her past, and the half black half-brother she never knew. The scene evokes an innocent youthfulness that helps her heal the pain of separation from her mother and the terror of her skinhead ex-boyfriend.
Megan Fischer and Tracey Maloney both hold their ground as Mary Ellen’s younger and older selves, respectively. There’s not much emotional range in their characters or their performances, but their standard delivery isn’t bad.
The rest of the cast is also fine in their roles, however equally one-dimensional most of them may be. As Mary Ellen’s mother Laura, Noel Richardson exhibits a sweeping naiveté about the consequences of her interracial relationship. Her husband Jimmy (Gavin Lawrence) and ex-husband Billy (John Middleton) have their requisite heated moments and confessions, but are nothing out of the ordinary.
Mary Ellen’s loving stepfamily exhibits slightly more interest. Grandpa Sonny (Carlyle Brown) and Grandma Martha (Greta Oglesby) contradict the stereotype of black families being abusive and divided. Michael Brown (Tommy Richardson), Laura’s half brother, injects the second act with desperately needed humor and honesty, giving the liveliest performance of the bunch.
It bears noting that as well performed, well intentioned and popular as these kinds of shows are, often they reinvent the very problem they are trying to solve. By taking a white hero down on his or her luck and having said hero singlehandedly pull disenfranchised black communities up by their bootstraps and to fame, prosperity and/or healing their racism, these narratives tend to remove power and intelligence from the communities they are attempting to empathize with. It bears equal noting that the audiences attending these shows are overwhelmingly well off, middle aged, and white as well, again segregating the story from its subjects.
American Family is a classic example of the difficulties of writing a play about racial issues, when sometimes what you exclude is more important than what you don’t. How can you make the characters and their concerns seem compelling but not cliché? Can you create a realistic story that doesn’t require a white savior or a black panther to achieve some good out of an awful situation? Could this play even exist outside of a downtown urban theater and a bourgeois audience? 
+ American Family continues at Park Square Theatre through April 7. Learn more