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An Onstage Battle Over Black And White, Gay And Straight In 'The Submission'

(L-R) Victor Shopov, Diego Buscaglia, Matthew Fagerberg, Aina Adler  (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)closemore
(L-R) Victor Shopov, Diego Buscaglia, Matthew Fagerberg, Aina Adler (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)

Victor Shopov’s Danny is a young, white, gay playwright who has finally written his ticket out of the grind of one-time basement readings and into the potentially prosperous world of Serious Theater. His new play, we’re repeatedly assured by trustworthy sources, is brilliant. It’s insightful. It’s, yes, important.

The trouble, such as it is, is that the play’s subject is something with which Danny readily admits he has absolutely no firsthand familiarity—an impoverished African-American family, headed by an alcoholic mother and including a troubled “card shark” son. The new play’s provocative, perhaps offensive title hints at an effort to invoke the painful past in order to transcend it: “Call A Spade.”

So Danny concocts a plan that waffles between farce and tragedy. He submits the script to a prestigious new-play festival under a nom de plume that implies he is actually an African-American woman. And when the play is accepted for a full production, he goes ahead and hires a black, female actress (Aina Adler’s Emilie) to stand in for him as the fictional auteur.

Set within our contemporary landscape of identity politics and carefully manicured racial sensitivity, Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission” wrestles with the relationship between the thing a person says and the identity of the person who says it.

Aina Adler and Victor Shopov (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)
Aina Adler and Victor Shopov (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)

“The Submission” could have been as bad an idea as the one its protagonist pursues. But in the rousing, drum-tight production by Zeitgeist Stage Company now performing at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Black Box Theatre, the play accomplishes the nifty feat of making a point and provoking discussion while still demanding an emotional investment in the fate of well-drawn characters.

In broad strokes, “The Submission” may sound like an episode of some 1980s-era, racially provocative sitcom from an alternate universe. But it’s a contemporary story that feels very real and relevant. And by the end of a knock-down, drag-out argument in an overlong climactic scene, the audience is left catching its breath and craving a break in the intensity.

Director David J. Miller guides his four actors through a fluid, well-paced performance. Though it mainly moves at a million miles per hour, he does find times to let the business breathe. The intensity of the central conflict is mediated by fine turns by Diego Buscaglia, who strikes a Brooks Brothers pose as Danny’s financier partner, and Matthew Fagerberg as a sympathetic friend caught in the crossfire.

Though the play could use some editing—some scenes in this very talky piece belabor a point or three, and Talbott indulges in theatrical in-jokes ostensibly targeted at his industry peers rather than the rest of the audience—this production hits nary a false note.

(L-R) Aina Adler, Victor Shopov, Diego Buscaglia, Matthew Fagerberg in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s “The Submission.” Photo by (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)
(L-R) Aina Adler, Victor Shopov, Diego Buscaglia, Matthew Fagerberg in Zeitgeist Stage Company’s “The Submission.” Photo by (Richard Hall/Silverline Images)

Shopov polishes off a heck of a 2014-'15 theater season with this role, which, following his turns as Liam in “Bad Jews” at Speakeasy Stage Company and, to a lesser extent, Max in “Bent” at Zeitgeist, has solidified him as a specialist in portraying smart, privileged white guys who strike a teetering balance between unlikable and sympathetic. His ability to both strike a nerve and pluck a heartstring is a pleasure to watch. (Shopov nabbed his first Elliot Norton Award, for "Bent," at the award ceremony on Monday evening.)

He’s onstage for nearly the entire one-act, and proves a perfect foil to Adler as Emilie, the accomplice to Danny’s ruse who finds the whole business increasingly difficult as he lets slip his casual bigotry. (She’ll win a “B’lony,” he tells her excitedly—meaning a Tony won by a black person—and can’t understand why that’s a problem.) She, arguably, returns it in kind.

The heart of their growing dispute is whether Danny’s experience of hardship as a gay man can fairly be likened to hers as an African-American woman. He commits the logical fallacy—which itself is the very kernel of the so-called “men’s rights movement”—of failing to understand or even consider the preexisting, overriding dynamics of power that negotiate the space between their two social stations. (He boorishly cites Black History Month as an example of special treatment, without it occurring to him that the primacy of the white experience has otherwise been so readily assumed as to go unnoticed.) For her part, Emilie callously regards Danny’s gayness as a casual lifestyle choice with relevance only to the bedroom. She wields an anti-gay epithet with a seeming cloak of immunity conferred by her own minority status.

But the questions posed here are not just about who deserves to have “ownership” of a history of oppression, but who gets to tell that story.

“The Submission" asks: Is a gritty play about black life in America an important new work if written by a black woman, but merely a patronizing exercise in bourgeois empathy if written by some well-off white dude? Does artistry transcend demographics?

And must the storyteller possess that ineffable asset known as “authenticity”… or is the play truly the thing?

Jeremy D. Goodwin is a frequent contributor to The ARTery, The Boston Globe, Berkshire Magazine and many others. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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