Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Co.
by Jeff Talbott
Directed by David J. Miller
May 5 – 30, 2015
Plaza Black Box
Boston Center for the Arts
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Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) Let me preface this review with the following: It is near impossible to have a frank discussion about institutional oppression and personal culpability/responsibility without becoming defensive or offended. If you are a white person who hasn’t closely examined your personal involvement as either an actual or potential racist, it is highly likely that you engage in racist behavior and don’t even know it. If you think it’s OK to affect a lisp and ridicule gay people because you “have gay friends,” you’re likely a homophobe. If you treat either gay people and/or people of color as not “normal,” you’re probably one, the other, or both. Casual racism/homophobia isn’t a POC/LGBTQ+ issue. It’s a failing of the white/hetero, cis members of society convinced that the fight against oppression ends when it becomes inconvenient to fight. It is possible to consider yourself a good person and still be rotten with racism or homophobia.
This is the last weekend that Zeitgeist will present The Submission. It is a play about a white, cis, gay man so frustrated by his White Guilt that he can’t trust the experiences of black people. Danny (Victor Shopov) has written an amazing play about living in the ghetto. Everyone thinks so. Even the good folks at the Humana Festival. They want to produce it. Unfortunately, they think Shaleeha G’ntamobi has written the play, not Danny. No such person exists so Danny hires Emilie (Aina Adler) to play Shaleeha in real life. That’s right; Danny is so terrified of being considered a racist that he hires a talented black actress to play a figment of his imagination for the benefit of his own ego. Things go from bad to worse when, at every step of the production process, Danny refuses to grant Emilie agency as an artist or person. The Submission tells us that everyone has a price. For Emilie and Danny, their dignity is sold for inauthentic fame.
The writing is very, very good. It is a full two hours long but Talbot could have ended the play in 45 minutes if he had written Danny as a halfway decent person. If Danny had granted co-authorship rights to Emilie for her contributions, they could have revealed the white dude behind the curtain together. They could have shared the limelight. But no, Danny is a supreme dick so thoroughly consumed by his fragile ego that he can’t see the racism through all the entitlement.
Talbot even fakes a pass at presenting Danny as maybe a ignorant but decent guy. Until we realize that Talbot isn’t playing Devil’s advocate, he’s leading us into a trap. He reveals the convoluted thinking racists use to convince themselves of their own innocence for what it is. It was great fun to watch the eyes of like-minded audience members glaze over.
Adler and Shopov make great sparring partners. The most powerful scenes in this production are when they are at each others’ throats. They did a great job working against with each other, and the intense subject matter. They were likable even as they screamed slurs across the room.
Adler held more power on the stage than Shopov. She took to Emilie naturally. At times it was difficult to tell if Adler was acting or if she was expressing a personal message. She had excellent chemistry with all her cast members, particularly Matthew Fagerberg (as alterna emo boytoy Trevor). They shared an affection onstage that clearly continues off the stage as well.
Shopov stretched himself to play Danny. It wasn’t a perfect fit but this being true means that Shopov stands the chance of avoiding emotional scarring. Yet, Shopov mansplains extremely well. His ranty monologuing was entertaining as well as frustrating as all get out. His was an effective villain.
Shopov did not have any chemistry with with onstage lover Diego Buscaglia (as Pete, the wonder boyfriend). Watching them kiss hurt.
It is not inherently racist for a white man to write a story about people of color. It is racist to take advantage of an opportunity by promoting himself as a black, straight woman when he is in fact a white, gay man. Representation matters. This is a racist act because he’s saying that his perspective into the black experience is more important than a black person’s. That’s not just racist; that’s selfish.