Stop me if you’ve heard this before: two black female professors walk into a café.
Ok, so maybe that’s a new one, and seemingly not the most appealing set-up for a theater production; academia can be a rather tedious topic, given to boring pretentiousness, dry long-windedness, and a tendency to take itself too seriously. Add a dialogue-heavy script and a sparse set design which places the two main characters in one room for the duration of its one hour run time, and you have a recipe for a potentially claustrophobic experience.
Instead, the Crowded Fire Theater production of “Blackademics” — a new work by Idris Goodwin making its West Coast Premiere — uses the intimate space of the Thick House’s small room to delve into an Afro-surrealist examination of the myth of “post-racial America” and classism within a black feminist sphere. It’s surprisingly engaging; even when “Blackademics” appears to gasp for breath, it never actually runs out of oxygen, as it jabs, pokes, and kicks its way toward a dramatically-thrilling conclusion which is anything but anticlimactic.
Directed by Mina Morita, Goodwin’s play, first developed in a 2012 Chicago production, seems perfectly at home in the Bay Area in 2015 – a time when an emergent social discourse around race and identity has become not just a frontline issue, but a virally-trending topic. So much is made of the struggles black men face, particularly with law enforcement, that it’s safe to say that the tribulations of black women academics are often an afterthought.
“Blackademics” suggests that tension over tenure is as real and compelling an issue as racial profiling, as is the contraction and reframing of ethnic studies departments. Institutional bias is unavoidable, given that most of the canons academics are expected to study are Eurocentric, which begs the question of where identity lies for people of color (and particularly black folks) with advanced degrees. There’s a funny bit where the two main characters, Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) engage in a rapid-fire name-dropping competition, each attempting to one-up the other by mentioning famous figures in literature – all of whom happen to be European.
At its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.
As characters, Ann and Rachelle aren’t completely filled in – a seemingly-intentional choice on Goodwin’s part. Each is a bit of a cipher, and their experiences in academia appear intended to be symbolic; they are more sounding boards for the black academic experience as a whole than detailed character studies. We are told that Ann teaches at a university, while Rachelle is at a state college – a dividing line in terms of career status. Much of their conversation concerns their career-first focus; we don’t learn too much about their social lives, other than that Rachelle – the more “ghetto” of the two – has a brother who deals drugs and quotes “The Wire.”
Ostensibly brought together to celebrate Ann reaching a career milestone, the discussion quickly becomes rife with conflict at the urging of a third character, Georgia, the waitress at the exclusive café chosen for their rendezvous. That the Georgia character (played by Michele Apriña Leavy) is a metaphor for societal and career acceptance, if not the Ivory Tower itself, becomes obvious when Ann and Rachelle are forced to spar intellectually for a seat at the dinner table, silverware, and plates of food. Initially innocuous, Georgia’s quirky machinations become increasingly sinister as the play goes on, setting the stakes for a final showdown, in which the back-and-forth banter crystallizes into physical action.
Fredericks and Spencer have a natural chemistry which makes it easy to see them as friends and colleagues. When they start tearing into each other, there’s a sense of, how far will they go? To their credit, each is able to make middle-class black angst seem nuanced, although the lack of specific depth may be more reflective of the script than the actors. Are we really supposed to believe that black academics sit around dissing Michael Eric Dyson for writing too many books?
As Georgia, Leavy has the most difficult acting task of the three stage performers. She not only has to convey a polite veneer, but also intentional vagueness about her true motivations. When the sparks begin to fly, Leavy plays it off with a goofy smile which, we later learn, is a mask for her real agenda.
That Goodwin is a gifted playwrite is evident in the extent to which “Blackademics” balances lighthearted humor with denser social commentary, continuously circling around the intersectionality between race and class – a difficult theme to correctly outline. The play’s zinging one-liners (“fuck Tennyson!,” one character says) are one of its high points; at its best, “Blackademics” aims for the canon of wit-driven social comedy exemplified by Neil Simon and Noel Coward, before a dark turn into the unexpectedly macabre turns it into something else altogether.
“Blackademics” runs through May 2; to purchase tickets, call (415) 746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.