Difference Squared

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One would think that living and working in a globally-oriented, diversity-embracing, socially and politically liberal city such as Chicago as a highly-educated, professionally-mobile gay person of color, I would never feel like I’m being treated differently because  I’m “gay” and/or because I’m a “person of color”.  And 99% of the time I don’t.  But there is that 1% of the time when I am made very conscious by other people, some of them highly-educated and professionally-mobile as well, intentionally or not, that I am living in a society where I am a minority.  There’s that time when a client requested for another consultant to take my place on a project since I wasn’t a “fit” with their corporate culture.  “Client fit” is a necessary hazard of my professional services occupation, so everyone took it in stride, including myself.  But my co-workers and I knew what this client’s corporate culture was – macho, blue-collar, Alpha-male, and “not a fit” was a nice way of saying something else.  Or there was that time when an acquaintance long-gone, a University of Chicago MBA to boot, sheepishly, embarrassedly, asked me: “I hope you’re not offended, but I really have to ask this, do Filipinos really eat black dogs?”  My flippant answer, followed by a laugh, meant to mask any embarrassment, shame, anger, or hurt feelings (and the ridiculous fact that she didn’t really have to ask it):  “No, we eat all colors of dog.”  Of course I am infuriated and offended by these situations, but I have also recognized that someone’s values, perspectives, opinions, and intolerances are cultivated by upbringing and experience, and education, enlightenment, and constructive debate can only do so much in re-shaping these.  Hey, I have some myself which I keep unexpressed. That’s why I applaud heartily, rousingly, with feet firmly planted in a standing ovation, the Goodman Theatre’s audacious, divisive, blistering, expectations-upending world premiere of Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary, a show that has been vigorously hated on by many of the city’s theater critics and bloggers, but which I encourage my blog readers to discover for themselves so they can come to their own conclusions about the value and impact of the work.  I may not like all of Mary, and I have some reservations about Bradshaw’s writing, but I highly recommend it.   

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot since I think one of the wonders of Mary is seeing how the story unfolds and the clever yet bombastic theatrical devices that Bradshaw employs.  Suffice it to say that the play starts off in the 1980s when a college student, Jonathan (Eddie Bennett) comes home for Christmas with his boyfriend David (Alex Weisman) to his Maryland family estate and meets his wacky parents (Scott Jaeck and Barbara Garrick) and their household help, Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and her husband (Cedrick Young).  Oh and by the way Mary is really called “the N-word Mary”,  she’s illiterate, her family has lived on the estate working for the family of David’s mother for generations since emancipation, and she and her husband may be working for free.  Mary is also deeply religious, and thinks people who don’t do anything to stop homosexuality will go to hell, so in a passive-aggressive way, she initially tries to break up the relationship between David and Jonathan.  She ultimately comes around, though…or does she?

The brilliance of Bradshaw’s talent, imho, is that he doesn’t really want to give the audience what it wants and expects.  The people looking for entertainment don’t get a joyous play.  The social liberals don’t get redemption, comeuppance, or political correctness.  Those fancying themselves to be sophisticated, been-there-done-that theatergoers don’t get nuance, subtext, or inferences.  And people can have varying reactions as to whether this ability is the mark of a genius or a shallow provocateur.  But, for me personally, I think Bradshaw effectively, impressively drives home his point, using a somewhat comic, somewhat stylized playwriting style:  that regardless of what our enlightened, First World society wants to believe, intolerance and bigotry still exist.  Maybe not explicit, or maybe expressed in subtle ways, but they’re there.  Life for gay people and people of color are still not hunky-dory.  Bradshaw pointedly, provocatively, articulately depicts what many of us may think or hold deep down inside of us, but would never say or act on publicly. 

As I have written many times on this blog, I do have a problem with writing that hammers me over the head.  And yes, some of Bradshaw’s writing is that:  sometimes it feels like I’m in a diversity training class (the scene when Weisman confronts Garrick on Mary’s relationship with the family, for instance) instead of the theater.  I feel like some of the cause-effect relationships are too one-dimensional (Mary’s religiosity = her intolerance for gays; Mother’s privileged background = hare-brained idea to open a re-enactment of a slave plantation on the estate as a tourist destination).   And although I admire director May Adrales’ thoughtful direction of the searing, off-putting material, I am a little confused about the variations in tone (highly stylized in the scenes with the family; naturalistic in scenes with only Mary and her husband together), which, having not read the play, I’m not sure if they emanate from Bradshaw’s writing, from Adrales’ handling, or from a combination of both.

 Taylor gives a fearless, impressive performance, one of the best of the year so far, in a daunting, ultimately unsympathetic (at least for this gay guy) role.  It’s a brutally vulnerable performance – I loved her in scenes such as when she admits to lying when David asks her why she has stayed with his family all these years instead of carving a separate, independent life for herself.  Her emotion and heartbreak in a scene such as this is palpable.  And Taylor carries off the gutsy final moments of the play courageously and marvelously.  The rest of the cast is good, with Weisman luminous and winning as always, and Garrick startlingly, but admirably, out-of-synch with everyone else in a mannered, riveting, why-is-she-getting-away-with this performance as his mother – a cross between Bette Davis in The Little Foxes, and a flighty docent in a Charleston historical museum gift shop.  She’s a hoot.

Bradshaw’s play is provocative, explosive, taunting, at times bullying, but its salient points and messages are pretty real and hits home for this Asian gay man.  It’s a play that deserves, at the very least, a viewing.  One of the city’s leading theater critics said Mary is an “insult to theatergoers”; I think the bigger insult is for these critics and bloggers to not point out the merits of seeing this new work and then letting educated, passionate theatergoers make up their minds.  It’s not a “feel good”, entertaining play – if you want entertaining, there’s always Les Miserables down the street.

You may end up either liking or hating Mary, or not, but if you care about theater and new work, you should at least see it.  It is running until March 6 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn.

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