“Ouch” was my first reaction to Spinning Into Butter, at the Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington last weekend, and the reaction stands. The reaction describes both my personal and dramatic feeling about the play, for not only was it a critique of schools like Williams (or even Williams itself), but as such, it was dramatically weak.
In regards the subject matter, the play was certainly relevant to our life at Williams. The general plot is this: a black student at a primarily white college in Vermont receives threatening racist notes addressed to “Little Black Sambo,” causing Sarah Daniels, the newly hired Dean of Students, to question her feelings about race. When the first letters appear, some of the more experienced deans reprimand her for notifying the police. One dean claims Sarah should know better than to go to the police – that “this is an internal affair.” The administration’s response is to plan a forum in which to discuss these issues with the students. The students don’t like the forum, they see the administration as unresponsive, and the notes continue.
Sarah is caught between the old guard, who wants to keep the matter quiet, and the students who are upset and want to take action. The minority students especially feel they are not getting treated fairly, and the BSU (yes, black students’ union) boycotts the forums. Sarah eventually has a breakdown and confesses she thinks she’s racist, citing as evidence that she has a ranking system for who she sits next to on the train, and black men are last. She believes she doesn’t “live up to the architecture” of the pristine, flawless campus. Soon after, the FBI handwriting analysis reveals that the notes were written by the black student himself. The rest of the play is devoted to the reasons behind the student’s actions and Sarah’s resignation.
I began to see many similarities between the fictitious “Belmont College” and Williams during the course of the play, similarities which brought to light quite a few problems present in both. Most blatant was the planning of a forum whose purpose seemed more to make the Belmont administration feel better about itself than to actually educate the students. Also, the fact that there were so few minority students in the play seemed problematic. This disparity was present not only in the student population, but in the campus at large. All of the deans, faculty members and the security guard we see on stage were white. Sound familiar?
The play, written by Rebecca Gilman, was good, but not great. It was certainly not as remarkable as I had expected, being told I was seeing a performance of Time magazine’s “Best Play of 2000.” The climactic scene in which Dean Daniels confronts her feelings about race was very well-done. The rest of the play was so-so. The dialogue was fairly realistic and the characters were well-constructed, but somewhat caricatured at times. What seemed notable to me was that Simon Brick, the black student recipient (and writer) of the racist notes, never appears on stage. At first I attributed his absence to the playwright’s very obvious point that the school does not take into account the viewpoints or feelings of their minority students. But by the end of the play I was very frustrated that I never got to hear him, and didn’t think that emphasizing his invisibility by keeping him offstage was effective.
The play entire play is set in Dean Daniel’s cramped office. The effect of seeing the whole show in that small space was effective, evoking the claustrophobia Dean Daniels experienced at Belmont before she resigned. However, the effect became intense enough to be at times distracting. The unobtrusive lighting worked well, highlighting the realistic nature of the play.
The direction of Eric Peterson, artistic director of the Oldcastle, was fairly solid. The acting was professional and effective across the board with the notable exception of the lead actress, Carol Symes. She played Dean Daniels in a way that was as highly-strung as I’ve ever seen a human being. I was surprised that the Peterson allowed Symes to use the excessive emotion she did throughout the play. She was perpetually either on the verge of tears or actually crying, making the climax less than climactic. Though she was struggling with the stress of her job, the racism issues and a very difficult relationship, she seemed as though she was about to crack throughout the play. When she finally did, revealing her own problems with racism, it was not at all a surprise. She played the climax scene very well – it’s just too bad she couldn’t have led up to it more by using some restraint. The other actors were also effective. Two of the students had an especially strong presence, as did Dean Catherine Kenney, played by Christine Decker. Decker managed to achieve a seasoned quality as a very experienced dean at Belmont. Her character was an excellent foil to Symes’ naive and panicked Dean Daniels. Unfortunately, because of Symes’ extended stagetime, the overall effect of the show suffered from her overdone portrayal. Her performance in other plays, including this summer’s “Civil Union” has been similarly overdone, but the Oldcastle continues to cast her.
The Oldcastle turned out a show replete with solid acting, set and lights. For me, the show suffered from the director’s choice to play the entire show in one room, Symes’ overemotional quality and the absence of the story’s central figure (probably the most complicated and interesting character in the play). The play entertained, though, and renewed my concern over the racial situation here at Williams. Although I can’t say I believe the future of Williams is as bleak as the one shown onstage, the play reminds us to keep examining our attitudes and surroundings.