Shall we give up now? After centuries of racial, religious and ethnic intolerance, from slave ships of the 17th century through the savagery of Charlottesville, shall we admit that the American melting pot hasn’t burned away prejudice and never will? That the best we can expect, Nazis and KKK members aside, is to live in uneasy cooperation if not empathetic comprehension?
Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission,” now getting its regional premiere from Three Bone Theatre, asks those kinds of questions. Despite two significant flaws, one in conception and one in execution, it’s the kind of valuable, challenging drama that explains why the Arts and Science Council decided to award Three Bone operating support for the 2017-18 season.
Danny (Scott A. Miller), a gay playwright who has never had work performed, writes a piece from the point of view of a black woman. He hires out-of-work actress Emilie (Lechetze D. Lewis) to pose as the author, in order to get into the prestigious Humana Festival; there he plans to unmask after a triumphant first night. His spouse, pragmatic but pessimistic Pete (Dan Grogan), doubts this will work. So does longtime straight friend Trevor (Daniel Henry), who becomes more enthusiastic as he and Emilie start to fall in love.
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Danny can’t participate in casting, producing or directing decisions, except via secret phone calls and texts. So the playwright, a mix of nerves and neediness, begins to crumble under the exclusionary strain. Emilie, strong-willed and convinced that she knows where a play by a “black woman” ought to go, asserts herself in the creative process. Tensions build, until each becomes a bile-spurting volcano. The title may refer not only to Danny’s literary submission to the festival but to their attempts to get each other into psychological submission holds, like professional wrestlers.
Author Talbott rightly constructs this as an intermission-free show, and director Sidney Horton sagely accelerates the pace as it goes along to maximize our anxiety. But they cannot get us to believe a veteran writer could imagine theater companies would jump at this play after he revealed the deception, no matter how beautifully written it might be. (He’d be a minor media celebrity in a humiliating way, but what theater group would touch him?) I did believe, with effort, that an unemployed actress who loved the play and needed a percentage of any profits might become a front for the author.
Soon enough, we’re caught up in the dialogues between Danny and Emilie. Can a white person, however well-intentioned, speak for a black one? The answer must sometimes be yes -- how else could Danny’s play be so moving? -- but does he have the right to do so? Does a lifetime spent enduring anti-gay sentiment mean you understand, at least in part, hatred toward African-Americans? Even if you do, should you express it through a script that drops the n-word like detonations in one scene? These questions, ultimately unanswerable, deserve attention.
Miller and Lewis give incendiary performances, shifting our sympathies this way and that, sometimes even in the same scene. They’re articulate, impassioned, persuasive. Then Talbott’s confrontational zeal gets the better of him, and he floors the accelerator and crashes. Debate turns into debasement, heated discussion into vilification. Danny, feeling cheated of glory, babbles nonsense that makes us wonder how such a racist could have written a compassionate, insightful play about black characters. Emilie, feeling judged and diminished, replies with homophobic rage.
Is Talbott saying any exploration of racial identity must end in defensiveness and contempt? That all of us harbor not only preconceptions and stereotypes but deep-down disgust for “the other”? That we are fated to misunderstand people unlike us and fail them at crucial moments? (If so, the response to my first paragraph must be “Yes.”)
He has written neither a hopeful play nor a simple one, except in the penultimate moments. I am not sure even he knows exactly what he wants to convey in the end. But if you care about this issue – let alone about provocative stage work in Charlotte – you’ll get over to Duke Energy Theater to figure that out.