BY AMANDA GOAD
Spinning Into Butter, now playing at the Theatre Cooperative, dredged up really unpleasant memories for me, and I had to call the police after the show. Yet I highly recommend it. Sound crazy? Well, I’ll try to explain, but you should really just come see it.
Spinning stars Korinne T. Hertz as Sarah Daniels, a young white woman working as Dean of Students at secluded (fictional) Belmont College in Vermont. Early scenes depict Sarah’s struggles to keep the students and her administrative superiors in equilibrium. Then word arrives that an African-American freshman has received a nasty racist note. More notes ensue. The college must address the problem, and Sarah’s balancing act becomes much more challenging.
Playwright Rebecca Gilman’s masterful script weaves one-line zingers into a tapestry of realistic scenes showing the interplay of academic and personal politics with the dean’s professional actions. The character who seems closest to understanding Sarah’s perspective is a campus police officer (Anthony Dangerfield). Professor Collins (David Rabinow), Sarah’s patronizing former lover, along with status-conscious Dean Kenney (Lida McGirr), and tweedily pompous Dean Strauss (Fred Robbins) show a credible disregard for the needs and wants of students as they hasten to put on a “campus forum thingy” and preserve the school’s reputation.
Meanwhile, Greg Sullivan (Ron Rittinger) effuses eagerness to start a group called Students for Tolerance, especially if he can include it on his resumé for law school. Sophomore Patrick Chibas (Carlos Folgar) resents Sarah’s recommendation that he represent himself to the scholarship committee as “Hispanic” rather than “Nuyorican.” The already high dramatic tension rises another notch in the second act, when the racial slurs’ perpetrator gets caught, and Sarah finally speaks out about her own feelings on race and racism.
Gilman avoids the common earnest-young-playwright trap of trying to answer the questions she brings up. The characters constantly force themselves, one another and the audience to question when liberalism is really a mask for intolerance.
Watching this powerful fictional account, I found myself recalling long-buried wounds and making new mental connections among the bigotries I’ve seen, felt and tried to address. I graduated from a tensely divided Virginia high school, made a hobby of staffing the gay table at college diversity fairs and spent two years Teaching for America, so bridging cultural divides is clearly a priority for me, but I think this show also reaches out to those who have addressed such issues less directly, perhaps over years of half-listening to the political correctness debate. Spinning Into Butter (the title refers to the story of Little Black Sambo, told by Dean Strauss as an attempted metaphor for Belmont’s plight) shows how talking about racial differences is sometimes a laudable end result, sometimes a beginning, and sometimes, if done badly, worse than nothing at all.
The Cooperative’s actors are well-cast and highly competent. Sarah broods at her desk very well, though her intensity of reaction to both friends and foes seemed a little lacking in the first third of the play. Professor Collins speaks so quickly when agitated that I missed bits of Gilman’s powerful dialogue. Greg Sullivan could be many of my 1L classmates. Perhaps the strongest performance came from Folgar as the angry young man of color. However, since all the other characters (and actors) in this show are white, I was troubled by the sensation that Carlos was speaking for all non-whites at Belmont, and that distinctions of perspective among African-Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic groups were being eluded.
The play premiered in 1999, but has already been performed at Lincoln Center, at London’s Royal Court Theatre and several other American venues. Gilman received the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays for Spinning Into Butter, which she wrote with a grant from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
The multitalented director of Spinning Into Butter, Lesley Chapman, also serves as artistic director for the company, answers the phone and sometimes works the concession stand at intermission. The set, comprising Sarah’s sparse office and decorated by Alicia Gregoire, remains constant throughout the thirteen scenes of the play. Three small risers place the audience closely around the stage. This intimacy, however, was disturbed several times by music and sirens from outside. I had been excited about venturing into the swath of north Somerville previously seen only during the cab ride from the airport, but this faded after urban bustle disrupted my dramatic experience — and especially after I realized my bike had been stolen off a signpost during the show.
Despite the anguish it caused me, I was really glad I saw Spinning Into Butter. I recommend it to anyone for whom talking about race has ever led to guilt or shame or sorrow, to anyone wondering what the life of university deans is really like, and to anyone seeking an impetus to serious thought with a few laughs along the way.