Racism is perhaps the ugliest, most pervasive and most reluctantly addressed component of American social relationships. If the election of Barack Obama marked a kind of destination from the journey through the civil rights movement, we travelers of all races still carry a great deal of baggage, a great deal of injury and a great deal of ambivalence. Nor is racism the only kind of discrimination we face. Whenever a human being is identified by a single component of their identity, whether race, religion, sexual orientation, wealth or poverty, physical or mental health, they are being discriminated against. They are being made less than a whole person.
These problems are dark and troubling, most often examined as large and, ironically, impersonal political issues. In Janece Shaffer's wonderful new play, “Brownie Points” we encounter all of these sobering issues in the most common sort of context, five moms trying to pull off a weekend camping trip for 14 unseen little girls. The strong and well-balanced cast create each of these women as individuals with whole lives, as ordinary and recognizable people who come to better understand each other through the simple act of honest communication. Being who they are individually in order to know who the other is. The play is never preachy or sanctimonious, the issues always humanized and everyday scaled, and the frequent humor always familiar and derived directly from character.
Karen Lund is a director who is at her best when she's working with fundamental and authentic dramatic interaction, with actors who are people first and performers second. The scenic design by Mark Lund brings the action so close to the audience that it feels like we're inside the room, and these women feel like all those women who fill our everyday lives. We think that we know every one of them, and that makes it all the more rewarding when we realize that we know them so very much better by the end of the play, and that because they now know each other so very much better.
Lund does a fine job of keeping every detail scaled to the everyday. Those concerns range from how to roast marshmallows when the firewood is wet to why the black women have been assigned to kitchen duties, from whose life is the most difficult and whose the most advantaged to how to get the kids out of the van where they're watching videos so they can go hiking. Because the play is so successful in illustrating how trivial details of daily life consume our attention it makes the arrival at larger, more substantive recognitions that much more powerful. When the “N-word” is used a single time, hanging in the silent air dripping with blood and sorrow and terrible history it (quite unexpectedly) brought tears to my eyes. That can only happen when a piece of dramatic writing and acting has fully earned its theatrical moment. This fine ensemble earns every moment of this play.
I don't want to identify every particular element of character that each of these women bring to the theme of the play because those discoveries are the real content of the drama. Suffice to say that every one of these women carry some element of their identity that could be a source of discrimination, and each of them will come to a better understanding of how incomplete is their recognition of how complex the other's lives are. Our discovery of each of them, and their discovery of each other, is the substance and reward of the play.
Casi Wilkerson is Allison, the harried organizer of the weekend. Frustrated because Deidre, a physician, is already late with no good excuse, she is not at all certain the other moms will follow her command. She has the entire campout organized in fifteen minute segments. She is a control freak because of many things in her life that are beyond her control. Deidre arrives in no particular mood for an outdoor adventure in a part of Georgia with a terrible racial history, and having already been stopped by a policeman for the crime of being “a black woman driving a Lexus on a country road.” When she discovers that she and the other African American mom, Nicole (Karen Ann Daniels) have been assigned to the kitchen for the whole weekend she is ready for a fight, and accuses Allison (in front of her daughter) of being a racist. What that really means and whether the accusation is at all justified is the initial impulse for the rest of the drama.
Faith Russell is perfect as Deidre. An imposing, powerful woman she carried the strength of her character's confidence, achievement and success balanced against her vulnerability to social injustice. Against Allison, whom she unconsciously casts as the embodiment of all racism, it's no contest. Allison has her own burdens weighing her down as she trudges through life. Only when Deidre recognizes that does she fully understand her own experiential blindness. The same is true for the delightful and insecure Jamie, played with energy and charm by Amy Love. Her experience as a Jewish woman in the deep South is entirely foreign to Nicole's experience as a young, privileged black woman. A two-woman scene between Jamie and Nicole (the talented Karen Ann Daniels) was exceptionally well written and deeply satisfying. Jamie was insecure and anxious to please and Nicole more confident but still aware of how fragile her security is. Two people coming to honestly understand each other better. Pretty fundamental drama.
Finally, Nikki Visel played Sue, a divorced woman trying to come to terms with her angry daughter and with being alone. The character was probably the least well developed in the script, but Visel made her familiar and sympathetic. Most importantly, she made the character feel integral to the group, and distinctive within her own experience.
“Brownie Points” achieves so much in approaching very large questions because it has limited its range of inquiry so smartly. I loved this show because the writing was so confident and accomplished, the intention so honest and appropriate to the action, and the characters so real. This cast makes every insignificant concern of their situation feel genuine, and that makes every significant concern in their relationships feel equally genuine. The director has the rare ability to make deep and authentic drama happen on the most human scale, and the whole performance becomes like a personal memory of an experience in our own lives. “Brownie Points” uses a small scale to create a huge success.
PICTURED ABOVE: Nikki Visel, Faith Russell, and Casi Wilkerson.
PHOTO BY: Erik Stuhaug.