Prejudice is an insidious thing. It can lay buried and restrained beneath layers of civilized liberalism, waiting for the emotional crisis that will bring it forth with all the destructive malevolence of a rabid Tea Partier. That is the point of Jeff Talbott’s new play The Submission, which gets its Philadelphia premiere this month.
The story revolves around Danny, a young white gay man, whose brilliant new play tells its story from a black woman’s perspective. Thinking the play won’t be taken seriously, Danny devises a ruse as implausible as any in Shakespeare: He hires a black woman to impersonate him during the course of the play’s run at the distinguished Humana Festival. (For those not in the know, the Humana Festival is for theater what the Sundance Festival is for movies.)
Trouble rises when the Festival requests that excessive usage of the “n” word be laundered out of the play. The faux playwright, Emilie, doesn’t have a problem with this, while the real playwright, Danny, objects strenuously, almost rabidly, to the changes. The conflict brings out hidden prejudices in both: a vicious racism in Danny and a virulent homophobia in Emilie. In a climactic fight, they both come face-to-face with this dark underside of themselves, and both are shattered by the sight.
Playwright Talbott tackles a tough subject, and he should be given credit for what he was trying to say. Unfortunately, the way he said it leaves much to be desired: The Submission is not a particularly well-written play. The first two-thirds of the play are filled with stiff, amateurish dialogue. The premise of the faux playwright strains credulity. Also, two characters— the main characters’ boyfriends— end up serving little function except as sounding boards. Lastly, there was a final short scene that was completely unnecessary and could have been (should have been) cut.
Fire and brimstone
However, despite these flaws, there are about 20 minutes of intense stagecraft that almost redeem the show. The final climactic argument between Danny and Emilie is potent and engaging. The actors (Andy Shaw and Hilary Asare) bring out all the fire and brimstone. We can only shudder when each character ends the fight by uttering the unutterable: “Fag.” “Nigger.” The horrified expressions on their faces show they are both aware of the personal Rubicon they have crossed.
Quince Productions should be complimented for doing their best to raise the bar for themselves by presenting plays of increasing depth, substance, and difficulty. The Submission, while uneven, will no doubt spark many discussions about the prejudices we may harbor deep within our hearts — and nothing causes prejudice to wilt faster than being subjected to the light of self-examination.