Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Well Intentioned White People

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through September 8, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

While the words of the title are never spoken in this play, the message is clear.  Good intentions or not, White people can seldom understand the experience of a Black person—especially when embedded in a culture that systematically supports racist and misogynistic patterns of behavior. In the world premiere of this topical and courageous play, playwright Rachel Lynett forces the audience to confront their own beliefs and attitudes.

Set on the campus of an unnamed college in what the script identifies as “a ‘hip’ and liberal town in a red state,” an accomplished Black professor’s car is keyed with the “N” word. With tenure decisions looming, she doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but a friend puts the event in the spotlight and before long, a Dean at the college demands that the professor organize an event to show that hatred and bigotry should not be tolerated. Soon, “Equality Day” becomes “Unity Week” and in the process, identity politics come to the fore.

Photo by Jennifer Graessle
In the lead role of Cass Davis, Myxolydia Tyler demonstrates the mental anguish and physical exhaustion of having to be the representative of her race.  She is particularly effective when, in her keynote address for Unity Week, she plaintively decries, “The problem is that no one is listening to anyone.” Viv, (Victoria Frings) is her girlfriend, a well-intentioned activist who can’t see her own privilege getting in the way of her causes. Parker, (Samy El-Noury) is trans and delivers some of the most cogent lines of the play. Dean West, (Andrea Cirie) is another well-intentioned white person who generates the idea for an “event” that is more public relations than effective, and young Mara, energetically played by Cathryn Wake, is a student with a habit of acting before she thinks.

The story is not atypical of a college campus. There is much truth to the way the power dynamics spin out of control. At the same time, the characters became a bit stereotypical and the dialog slightly forced. Director Tiffany Nichole Greene knows how to find the best moments to make the point. As the show runs, hopefully the cast can feel more comfortable with an audience, they will tease out the danger that is inherent in each characters’ decision. We need more plays like this to enliven discussion and show what is so hard to talk about.