'Butter' probes hidden racism

Solving social ills is no walk in the park. But the basis of all social ills is, first and finally, individual. And it is in individual thought and action that these problems must be faced.

That, at least, is the thrust of a controversial new play that is making the rounds at regional theaters.

An excellent production of "Spinning into Butter" by Rebecca Gilman is being staged at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) through March 2. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago originally commissioned the work, and it is being produced at several regional theaters during the 2001-2002 season.

The theater is a great place to probe private feelings and public behavior. Audiences come together to share a live experience with the actors, and ideas are of primary importance.

"Spinning Into Butter" is a tough play for audiences because it probes not only hidden liberal racism but the political correctness that shuts people up - that actually prevents dialogue rather than promotes healing among races. (The arguments apply equally as well to issues of gender, religious differences, culture, and class.)

The play is based on a racist incident that occurred at the playwright's predominantly white college.

Sarah Daniels, dean of students at a small Vermont college, has offered a sizable grant to a student of color who does not wish to be categorized as Puerto Rican, Latino, or Hispanic, but rather as "New Yorican." She talks him into taking the Puerto Rican label, because bureaucracy demands recognizable groupings.

In the meantime, an African-American student finds vicious racist notes tacked to his door. The college is mobilized, with the dean of humanities calling for forums to discuss racism and requiring the entire school's attendance. The forums are a resounding failure because no black students show up.

When the "New Yorican" student returns to the dean's office complaining about the price he has to pay for his scholarship (being pigeon-holed as Puerto Rican), nothing the dean says truly reaches him.

In this scene, we recognize the student's sincere, legitimate desire to be viewed as an individual rather than a member of a race. We also see that he wants to be heard, but will not listen. Finally, we see the dean's own confused state of mind.

A lot of heart-searching later, she confesses her secret racist fears to a colleague. She makes the mistake of writing her feelings down, and her words are discovered by her superiors. At the same time, the FBI finds that the aggrieved black student has been writing the horrible hate letters himself.

How mixed human motives can be, how confused and convoluted, the play seems to say. In the dean's case, her angry confessions indicate a basically good person's need to resolve, rather than cover up, her conflicted state of mind.

In a grand theatrical device, we never see the African-American student, Simon Brick, on stage. But his presence is felt in every scene. When his deceit is uncovered, he is expelled from the college - yet no one ever asks him why he did it.

David Mamet's play "Oleana" deals with sexism, with problems of communication, and, on a deeper level, with the kind of witch-hunting mentality by which decent people are persecuted if their politics are not "pure" enough. Though not as well-written or ultimately as profound as "Oleana," "Spinning Into Butter" raises the same provocative questions.

Yet there's too much teeth-grinding and self-loathing going on and not enough insight into the mixed bag that human nature is. Ms. Gilman's message is heavy-handed - though the Denver production is as fine as spun silk and just as natural, mitigating the effects of overwriting.

The play implies that good people want to overcome their shortcomings, not keep spinning themselves into butter like the tigers in the Little Black Sambo story referenced in the play.

Disgraced, Dean Sarah picks up the phone after she has resigned and calls the expelled student to open those lines of communication slammed shut by the college's politically correct restrictions and by the student's own silence.

"I think somebody needs to look at the band-aid approach of politically correct speech - what it is doing to academic and social institutions," said the director of the DCTC's production, Donovan Marley.

"And while I do think there have to be rules so that a dialogue can take place on a subject as sensitive as race, it occurs to me that the gag [of] politically correct speech prevents communication as often as not. This is the first playwright that has taken on that subject in a significant way."

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