It can be tough to decide whether some of the material in Kirsten Greenidge’s plays has been ripped from the headlines (as with the playwright’s other play currently running in Boston, “Milk Like Sugar,” in a production by Huntington Theatre Company), or whether life has somehow echoed Greenidge’s work. In some ways, given recent events on college campuses around the country, her latest, “Baltimore” — seen in a co-production between New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance through Feb. 28 — feels like an example of the latter.
The story centers around a racially charged incident in a college dormitory. The resident advisor there, a young woman named Shelby Wilson (Desiré Hinkson), is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of the freshmen under her supervision and turns out to be utterly unprepared (and unwilling) to respond when images of a racist caricature begin circulating online. The image has been drawn on the door to an African-American student’s room. Is it a tasteless joke? Is it a hate crime?
The author of the offending graffiti is a young woman named Fiona (Lexi Jenne), a punkish sort given to sassy short haircuts, leather jackets and fishnet fashion that seems to be more like a body stocking than the usual legwear. Lexi is white — and so pale that in high school they called her “Snowball.” Having endured that nickname, Lexi feels she’s earned the right to poke fun at others and she’s taken aback by the firestorm of outrage her drawing prompts. Rather than seek out Alyssa — the woman whose door she defaced — Lexi dispatches her African-American boyfriend, Bryant (Seth Hill), to find Alyssa and explain on Fiona’s behalf. This is no easy task, since Alyssa has disappeared and the hall’s residents are in turmoil.
The play skips from scene to scene and time stamp to time stamp. Animated projections helpfully give us a sense of where and when we are as each encounter begins, as the hours tick by while students grapple, in twos and threes, with the incident. Some want to burn the place down; others say the whole thing is being blown out of proportion. But then again, when it comes to a possible episode of racist harassment, what’s proportionate?
The quarrels that erupt are free-ranging, with race, class, gender, and sexual politics all coming into play. A white student named Carson (Kalei Devilly) debates the issue of whether or not he, personally, is colorblind; after all, he has a “Chinese grammy” (and, incidentally, two mothers). His interlocutors are Rachel (Linda Perla), a Latina, and Leigh (Jade’ Davis), who is African American and who unleashes a fresh outpouring of outrage over the fact that Fiona and Bryant are a couple. (She’d much prefer it if Bryant were interested in Alyssa.)
While Leigh and Rachel challenge Carson on the notion that a white person can be racially colorblind, Shelby herself, tracking events on her ever-present cell phone, insists that America is (or ought to be) post-racial. She tests this belief on Grace (Ami Park), who is Korean-American. Grace, being pragmatic, looks to the larger problem: The students in Shelby’s hall need her to step in and get them talking along more constructive lines. Is Shelby capable of that degree of leadership?
A pair of telling scenes between Shelby and a new Dean (Cliff Odle) bookend the play. Dean Hernandez has long been deeply immersed in racial questions as an academic, but also as a person; his own America has never been post-racial. The play’s most electrifying debates occur not along racial, sexual or socio-economic fault lines, but along generational ones. Hernandez expresses the idea that history is a living, potent force. Shelby, with the impatient fast-forward energy of youth, contests this. But the dean has a point; the offending caricature Fiona draws on Alyssa’s door is a reproduction of a cartoon Fiona found among a box of her father’s things. The caricature itself is naïve, ugly and ridiculous, but its emotional impact comes from centuries of racial inequality and contempt. Fiona cannot comprehend why she should be held accountable for the nation’s past sins, but most everybody else seems to understand on some level that those sins do not lie entirely in the past — nor are they buried, much less atoned for.
Shelby all but dismisses Hernandez and his arguments with an uncomprehending wave of her hand, in much the same way she simply retreats from the controversy that engulfs her hall. What need is there for an intellectual appreciation of complexity, or the toil of unknotting history’s hopelessly tangled narrative threads, when your smart phone is running Google and more apps than you know how to use? That same phone, though, can transmit images and ideas, and when those images and ideas defy Shelby’s pat faith in a post-racial America she’s frozen with fear and incomprehension. Shelby has less concern for culture than for her data plan, and while online exchanges are known to get heated and even vicious, the real world is riddled with even more harrowing perils.
The gap Greenidge explores here, of knowledge versus information (and wisdom versus opinion), is a recurrent one in literature but it’s never been more timely than it is now. That particular theme, introduced at the outset and then revisited in the light of the play’s explorations of race in America, serves as a conceptual bedrock, and it’s the only theme that’s treated with subtlety.
None of the characters are cookie-cutter, but the shapes of their arguments often feel contrived; just as the play compresses and corrals time, so too does Greenidge corral different, and passionate, points of view. It’s artful, but it’s also artificial, and reading the press notes about the play’s commission from the Big Ten Theatre Consortium you could almost feel that you’ve witnessed the required boxes being ticked one after the next: “Each play features at least six substantial age-appropriate roles for young women,” the notes explain. Greenidge fulfills the requirements, and then does so much more than that, but structurally the writing here has a sense of constraint, if not confinement. As a result, there are stretches in the production that have a claustrophobic, trapped-in-a-box feeling about them.
The cast, composed entirely of students from Boston University’s School of Theatre, sells it. Greenidge gives each character a striking nugget of biography, and these anecdotes are revealed in soliloquies that are articulate to the point of poetry. Under the direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, the actors focus on these outpourings and allow them to serve as the psychological wellsprings from which their responses flow.
Artificial as the play feels in its structure and flow, Vaan Hogue skillfully directs it to a crucial moment: In a lovely, ingenious resolution, Greenidge proposes that it’s only when the arguing stops that the conversation can begin.
Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.