Theater Review: N (Greenhouse Theatre Center & GLP Productions in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 28, 2019

in Theater-Chicago

THE HURT OF HATE

Dirty laundry demands an airing. Given the disunion afflicting our republic, a play like (short for the “N word”) has healing to share. A provocative world premiere by Chicago writer David Alex at the Greenhouse Theater Center, this 100-minute character piece stirs up the sometimes static tale of an evolving relationship between proverbial and political opposites. As they learn from each other, the audience gets the best of both worlds.

Can a trigger word for hate ever be spoken on stage, especially by a white actor? Does tame talk ever touch the truth? These are questions around which Alex constructs a solid story. He connects two polarized characters whose eventual reconciliation creates the common ground where racism can go to die.

On one side is Mrs. Page (Stacie Doublin), a 70-year-old African-American conservative and financial consultant. She mutters shibboleths such as “Conservatives know they are but liberals only think they are.” Proud and prudish, this gun-owning life force is feisty, independent and set in her ways. An astrology devotee who campaigned for Barry Goldwater, quotes Booker T. Washington, and presumably endorses Clarence Thomas, this libertarian distrusts government and believes in local control, which she personalizes to include resenting her unseen son’s interference in her life.

That unsought aid includes hiring Eddy (Ryan Smetana), a 23-year-old, live-in caregiver who is not incidentally also an ambitious white actor. Initially this brash young liberal (he wears a shirt that says “INVICTUS” and also works in the zoo’s reptile house), rubs Mrs. P. wrong with his actor’s presumption to master all reality. Slowly, they manage to bond. He cleans up his act as she strikes a gong whenever he curses. She enjoys challenging him at Scrabble. They come to delight in their differences.

In Alex’s slow-to-boil one-act it takes a while to reach the flash point that will link Mrs. P. and Eddy. It happens when the actor lands a possible career-making role in a solo show about Oedipus. All goes well until the playwright’s rewrite makes Eddy use the “N word” in “as ignorant as a…”. Not wanting to be confused with the part, Eddy refuses to utter a demeaning epithet which the director defends as “very today.” Mrs. P, who believes in choices and their consequences, concurs. Eddy’s career seems endangered as he improbably fears being black-balled in the theater community because of his delicacy over dialogue.

But that’s too easy an impasse for this probing play. An incident at a bar where Eddy parties with his African-American childhood chum DeShawn (Reginal Hemphill) makes him realize that color blindness only applies to eyes. Eddy too is capable of false appropriations as when he drunkenly resorts to a patronizing “brother” and a castigating “thugs.” Fearful that he’s not a good guy after all, maybe he can say “N” after all.

Mrs. Page harbors her own regrets over succumbing to the wrong impulse (like endorsing Goldwater over a technicality she resented in the fourth Civil Rights Bill). It’s their humanizing failings that connect these decent souls that matter more than their differences over political priorities and how to be “a majority of one.” A gift from work, Eddy’s present of a snake skin, cast aside in order to promote further growth, takes on, like much here, metaphorical significance.

Director TaRon Patton keeps it real, with help from three actors who prove very present and accounted for. Doublin’s dignity and Smetana’s cockiness deliver some very charming collisions and eventual concord.

can hardly settle all the hash about its ugly title term. We know all too well that if the “N word” (and its equivalents against women, Jews, Hispanics and gays) ever disappeared, bigotry would not. Political correctness forgets that cosmetic changes won’t work and can be dangerous distractions. But friendships like Mrs. Page and Eddy sure can’t hurt.

photos by Marcus Davis

N
Greenhouse Theater Center & GLP Productions
Greenhouse (Upstairs Main Stage) 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sat & Sun at 3 (Nov. 8 understudy performance)
ends on November 17, 2019
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit Greenhouse

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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