'The Submission' author wants to inspire dialogue about race in America
Playwright Jeff Talbott isnt afraid to stir up opinions and emotions about racial attitudes in America
IF THE ongoing tensions sparked by the recent series of shootings of black men by white cops hasn't supplied America with enough race-based drama, there's always playwright
's "The Submission."
The one-act play, from Quince Productions, which on Thursday opens a 16-day run at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5, centers on a white author who submits a play (called "Call A Spade") to a prestigious festival under the name of an African-American woman, assuming that such a subterfuge will enhance the piece's chance of being accepted.
That's exactly what happens, which compels the writer to recruit an African-American actress to pose as the fictional author.
During a recent phone call, the Nebraska native admitted that he's received plenty of negative feedback from critics and public alike - it's always iffy when a white person delves into the black experience. But, he explained, he never worried about blowback when he was crafting the piece.
"At the time, I was unproduced, and there's a great kind of freedom in nobody paying attention to you," he offered. "You just write what you want. I never thought anyone would produce anything I was writing, that's the God's honest truth.
Besides, he continued, "I didn't find the play all that out-of-bounds provocative as opposed to any other entertainment that I was looking at. I have since come to find out that some people's experience of this play is the opposite of that. This play makes some people very angry. But this play makes some people laugh a lot."
So much so, he said, that "Google pops" about him "say either I'm amazing or I'm the devil.
"I don't take it personally. I understand the play is not for everybody. But the people that it's for, it's really for."
And who would that be?
"The people who don't think that asking an intelligent question is necessarily provocation," he reasoned. "It's just an intelligent question."
Talbott didn't start out to act as an agent provocateur. As a matter of fact, "The Submission" began as an entirely different kind of play.
"I had written a first play that was very personal about my family and it wasn't getting a lot of traction, so I started to write something else that I thought was just going to be a satire about theater," said Talbott, who started his career as an actor.
"I got a couple of scenes into it and I actually got kind of bored; I felt I had seen that play before. So I remembered a discussion I had when I was in school with one of my classmates that was about prejudice, and about the differences between prejudices depending on your viewpoint - whether you're gay, or African-American, and if that prejudice has any crossover between groups.
"I [thought], that's an interesting topic, I wonder if that could work its way into this play? That's how I started unlocking the rest of the play, and that's how 'The Submission' came to be what it is."
After some 20 productions of "The Submission," Talbott is now "inured" to criticism. And he prefers to emphasize what he considers the most important byproduct of his work - the dialogue it engenders.
People "walk out of the theater having a discussion about what it made them think [about] those topics," he said. "And I think that theater needs to do that once in a while.
"The second act is that conversation that takes place on the car ride home."
'Liberace' falls short
There's no question that
is a perfect subject for a stage bio. After all, the ultra-flamboyant, unique entertainer born Wladziu Valentino Liberace (he preferred to be called "Lee") was one of the most popular performers of the 20th century. And his personal life (unstintingly detailed in the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra") was quite dramatic: He was a closeted gay man (though not necessarily successfully) who was beloved by the middle-America of the 1950s and beyond.
One day a stage project worthy of its subject will be mounted. "Liberace" is not that show.
There are a number of reasons why "Liberace," which runs through April 12 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, doesn't work.
First of all, it's hard to capture such a larger-than-life personality in a space as small as Studio 5. A Liberace tribute demands such trappings as sophisticated lighting and a sizable orchestra, not the rudimentary (if perfectly adequate) illumination and one-man cast (Jack Forbes Wilson) offered here.
Then there is the matter of Wilson's impersonation in the program that posits that Liberace (who died of AIDS in 1987) has returned from the Hereafter for one final gig. Wilson hints at Liberace's prairie-flat Wisconsin accent, but doesn't really nail it. And, physically, he's a little too lean and angular for the role.
But Wilson does have one thing going in his favor: He is a technically impressive pianist who ably and effortlessly captures his subject's musical chops, whether stomping through a double-time boogie-woogie number, or navigating the tricky waters of a piece by Liszt, Mozart or other classical music megastars.
A more problematic issue is the two-hour-long show's historical accuracy. One sequence has "Liberace" relating the tale of how he almost died in a Pittsburgh hotel room after accidentally inhaling dry-cleaning chemicals. We are told this happened during a snowstorm on Nov. 22, 1963.
According to two Web sites, (wunderground.com and farmersalmanac.com), the high temperature in Pittsburgh that day was 66 degrees. And according to an article on tubecityonline.com, the incident actually happened Nov. 23 in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville, Pa. So the question is begged: How much more of the biographical information contained in the piece is inaccurate?
Bottom line: Wilson should stick to straight concert performances, and those interested in Liberace should avail themselves of You Tube.