September 29, 2011 5:02 pm

The Submission, Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York

Racially charged fare in a Jeff Talbott premiere

New York is rich in racially themed drama at the moment: Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, both of which won London’s Olivier award for Best New Play (the latter was acclaimed earlier off-Broadway), are headed for Broadway openings. Other high-profile work is soon to follow.

A premiere of Jeff Talbott’s drama The Submission, however, off-Broadway in an MCC production, inaugurates the new season’s run of racially charged fare. Talbott’s approach to the subject is singular. He not only measures the differences in contemporary American perception of black and white but explores the comparison between the rhetoric of black civil rights advocates and those pressing for gay civil rights.

Talbott’s plot: the career of Danny, a white American playwright, has yielded little success. He determines that his new play, a drama about a black family in publicly funded housing, must have a production. To advance his chances, he submits his work to the Humana Festival, a well-regarded American showcase, under a pen name suggesting an African-American female. The work is accepted.

Danny’s gambit is not unprecedented. Real-life authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Doris Lessing have written novels under names designed to alter the public’s perception of their identity. Talbott goes a step further: he hires a black woman, Emilie, to pose as the playwright.

Structurally, The Submission insists a little too much on making sure Danny is alerted to the reprehensible problems of his deception. Both his lover, Pete, and his best friend, Trevor, sound the alarm.

If Talbott were concerned that we wouldn’t accept that a man as intelligent as Danny could act so duplicitously, he needn’t have been: genius and deception are frequently encoded on the same strand of DNA.

Under the sure-handed direction of Walter Bobbie, the cast of The Submission strive to compensate for this interval-less work’s at times distracting excitability (there’s a lot of shouting.) Of special note is the Trevor of Will Rogers, rapidly becoming one of my favourite young American actors: he knows how to play sensitivity without overdoing the gooiness.

As for the rhetorical war between Danny and Emilie on black rights and gay rights, I kept thinking of Christopher Isherwood’s comment in one of his diaries: “Oppression should not be an ouch contest.”

3 stars


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