“The Submission”: shockingly candid, surprisingly forgiving

Defunkt Theatre tells an inflammatory story with (some) sympathy for all sides.

In Defunkt Theatre’s production of “The Submission,” we start off rooting for Danny (Matthew Kern), the playwright-within-a-play. He’s written a script that he believes deserves to be read, picked, and produced by the theater powers that be—and it’s a long shot. But his friend Trevor (Matthew Dieckman) and his boyfriend Pete (Bjorn Anderson) vouch that his script—a story of a black family struggling to get out of the projects—is surprisingly legit, even brilliant and profound. Danny has apparently used a black poverty vernacular to reveal universal truth…but as a white gay man, he starts to worry that he can’t get away with that.

To save his script from the dreaded slush pile, Danny Larson replaces his name with a fake, “black sounding” woman’s name, Shalia Ganatamobe, reasoning that in this context, any black woman’s chances would be better than his own—and that’s…not…fair?

When his submission gets accepted under the new name, he sees that as proof of his presumptions, and he decides to prolong his con. He enlists black actress Emilie (Andrea White) to help him—just til the play can achieve the success he’s certain it deserves. But as Emilie enters his social circle and starts voicing opinions of her OWN, Danny’s possessiveness and prejudice rears its ugly head on many fronts. Gradually the young, idealistic, self-described “very gay” artist reveals his resentment of the theater scene’s informal affirmative action push, reframing reparation as minority privilege and bemoaning the white man’s supposed disadvantage.

Danny (Matthew Kern) and Emilie (Andrea White) collude in a doomed scheme. Rosemary Ragusa Photography.

Danny (Matthew Kern) and Emilie (Andrea White). Rosemary Ragusa Photography.

Emilie, far from a helpless victim, signs on as Danny’s co-conspirator in the hope of raising her own profile. But in a humanizing yet desympathizing twist, she turns out to be fairly homophobic (arguably a more prevalent view in black communities). As Danny starts to run his mouth about his industry’s “Bloscars” and “Blonys” (slang for Oscars and Tonys awarded to undeserving black actors), Emilie counters with slurs about “butt buddies” and “the gay mafia.”

Every spat escalates toward the pair’s horrendous but inevitable “Faggot! Nigger!” exchange. Danny vibrates with an electric current of righteous rage; Emilie glows with the fires of deep-seated indignation. The audience, having sympathized with both, recoils incredulously, like, “Oh-no-you-DIT’nt.”

This show overall is not nearly as hateful and derisive as this premise might suggest. Many redemptive nuances of character and comic moments set it apart from, for instance, David Mamet’s more misanthropic “Race.” Nobody’s wiser to “Submission”‘s strengths than its playwright Jeff Talbot, who commandeers Trevor’s opening lines to Danny to indirectly give HIMSELF a compliment. “Four characters,” Trevor remarks, “…producible! lean…taut…authentic!” Based on this and subsequent devices, add self-aware and witty. And the actors keep pace.

Despite his shocking statements, Kern plays Danny too sympathetically to hate. When he’s frayed and anxious about his terrible decisions, we pity him. And when he’s eager and manic about his triumphs, we get swept up in the excitement. Similarly, White as Emilie seems too reasonable and sweet for Danny (or us) to resent, and her moments of infectious joy very nearly outshine her hateful outbursts. Kern certainly seems to play a gay stereotype more than White plays a black one—though that’s exactly the type of observation this script scrutinizes. Still, as White’s character bluntly observes, her claim to minority status is, unlike a white gay man’s*, worn physically for all to see.

Trevor and Pete, the main characters’ dreamboat boyfriends, exert a tempering influence on their S.O.’s, exposing the warring pair’s softer sides and gently coaxing them through their anger. With near-saintly patience, Trevor reminds his new girlfriend Emilie that her homo-slurs are “not what grown people say,” but promises to stick by her in the hope that she’ll “aim higher.” Such lines could easily seem condescending, but from the Drammy-winning Dieckman, they somehow sound affectionate and respectful. Even hints at phone sex don’t sound sleazy from this master of inflection. (One noteworthy distraction is Trevor’s sporadic use of sub-swear words, a la “GD” and “F.” He ends up dropping the actual F-bomb eventually anyway, making these weakened declarations stick out even further.)

The dashing, preppy Pete, meanwhile, steals kisses from his fretting boyfriend Danny and prides himself on remaining “wonderful.” He exudes a “Brooks Brothers,” buttoned-up confidence, mustering optimism against his better judgment and breezing through ALMOST all of the awfulness that ensues. Here, Anderson shows a subtle command of mixed feelings, feigning humility and suppressing anger as a manifestation of upper-crust manners, but occasionally flashing the assumption of superiority that’s pretty thoroughly instilled in the white Wall Street set he represents.

But as for the original question: can a white person write the black/other ethnic experience—and be respected for it? Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” and Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” spring to mind in this context, both bestselling novels eventually adapted to the big screen. “Geisha”‘s linguistic extravagance alone alienates it from Japanese writing tradition (brevity to the point of haiku), and its cultural assertions have also been widely refuted for inaccuracy. “Help,” too, has courted controversy, widely though not universally decried for being racist. So the white writer who co-opts an ethnic experience does risk harsh (but often justified) criticism…and yet imagining another’s perspective is often the first step to true understanding.

“If I truly wrote only what I know, my plays would all be about my cat,” remarked “The Submission”‘s (white) playwright Jeff Talbott in a recent interview. What to do? Probably the opposite of the tragically cautionary Danny: proceed with humility, do plenty of research, respect boundaries, and take correction.

*At Reed Arts Week 2013, queer activist artist Zach Blas rang alarm bells on this assumption, citing studies on facial recognition technology that show that test subjects can detect “gayness” through still photos of complete strangers.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.

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