“If you, as a white person, would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand up.” If you, the reader of this review, are not a Black person, would you stand? Talk About Race, an audio performance written and directed by REP company member Hassan El-Amin, gives its listeners this prompt near the beginning of the show. While the performance elevates interesting, provocative ideas like this, it doesn’t build a compelling narrative thread through its various vignettes.
El-Amin has designed a collection of stories that explore and express the history of Black Americans’ experiences with racial injustice, inequality, and violence. Composed of intersecting vignettes, Talk About Race includes a press conference with an unnamed Black president who finds himself stuck giving the same safe and counterintuitively neutral response to reporters: “There is not a liberal America [or] a conservative America. There is not a Black America, a white America, a Latino America, and an Asian America. There is only the United States of America.”
After he answers a handful of questions this way, we get a glimpse of the president’s “realest” thoughts when a reporter pressures him for more. In a stream of reflections we can hear but the reporters can’t, the president laments the racism and hatred he’s received over his two terms. When we break out of this glimpse into his mind, the president offers different words, much more direct about the change needed—but then, the scene ends.
This is where the show fails to compel. Spending time in the president’s head, the tone of his voice and the soundscape grow dim, laced with indignation that he has to suppress. There’s tension here, and a perspective that is intriguing. But that tension and perspective merely fade into the next vignette, the momentum discarded.
Is there more to talk about?
Talk About Race eventually arrives at a fictional game show, The Black Guy Did It!, which is anointed America’s number one game show. Players answer a handful of questions on Black history which poke at the contestants’ ignorance. The humor here didn’t do anything original, relying on tropes and stereotypes about white people’s responses to Blackness that have been done many times before.
There are other vignettes, too. A keynote speech makes the case for reparations. Protestors chronicle Black history with somber facts and quotes drawn from figures like Olaudah Equiano, Sherrilyn Ifill, Shirley Chisholm, and John Lewis. And a Black man initiates a hostage situation, demanding to negotiate with a Black police officer.
An old conversation
Talk About Race does exactly what its title prompts. Unfortunately, it feels more like a sermon or a lecture than a performance at times; or perhaps more gently, an hour-long fictionally interpreted meditation on the history of Black Americans. Its meditations could go deep, but the vignettes only scratch the surface. No new perspective, theme, or message is introduced, and if you’re familiar with the historical names and events that the show introduces, then you may have a hard time finding any takeaways.
The show is safe and may spark vigor in some of its listeners, but the conversations it conducts will feel repetitive for those who are more aware of America’s long, painful history of racial injustice and violence.
Image description: A screengrab of a remote recording session of Talk About Race, with a diverse group of six people, their faces in six square boxes. Hassan El-Amin, a Black man with a gray beard and large headphones, is in the top left box, gesturing with his hand as he speaks.
What, When, Where
Talk About Race. Written and directed by Hassan El-Amin, presented by Resident Ensemble Players. Streaming for free via SoundCloud through Sunday, February 28. Request a link at rep.udel.edu.
A written transcript of Talk About Race is available for download upon request.