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A Play About Race Meant To Make Its Audience Cringe

In her new show, "Well Intentioned White People," playwright Rachel Lynett continues the conversation about race in America. The play finishes its premiere run at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, this week.

Actions speak louder than words, it's said, and when they only appear to be "good" actions, they can also cause a mess of problems.

The action on stage in "Well Intentioned White People" begins in an apartment shared by Cass, a black college professor in her mid-30s, and Viv, who is a white activist of the same age. The two have recently split up, but still live together.

In the opening moments of the show, we learn there was a racial incident that Cass would rather forget. On stage, she's sitting calmly on the couch in her apartment when Viv walks in.

Viv is completely flustered. She's just seen Cass's car, evidently vandalized.

Viv: Oh my God! [Slams the apartment door shut.] Cass: Hi Viv. Viv: Cass. Oh my God. Have you seen your car? Cass: Yes, I have. Viv: How... how long has it said that? Cass: I guess since after lunch. It wasn’t like that when I took a lunch break so after-- Viv: How are you not freaking out? Cass: It’s a word. Viv: The worst word. Cass: It’s not the worst word. I'll deal with it.

It's the N-word, and playwright Lynett told NEPR that during performances she can feel the audience cringe whenever it's said, and characters say it often.

"That cringiness and that discomfort is what black people experience 90 percent of the day," Lynett said. "I wanted to give 90 minutes of that."

Lynett is black. She often cushions the N-word in smartly written, very funny dialogue. She purposely wrote it this way, she said, watching mostly white audience members for reactions. It's who she wrote the play for.

"Most theater audiences are white, liberal people who are older, who are used to seeing plays that are set in the '50s or the 1800s, where it's about slavery and it's about segregation," Lynett said.

People can too easily distance themselves from reality, she said. They can pat themselves on the back, and think society is doing much better now, that it's "post-racial."

"Well Intentioned White People" takes place in a "hip and liberal town in a red state," Lynett writes in the script notes. It could be Austin, Texas, or Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Lynett teaches theater and writing.

It won't be unfamiliar to anyone living in a college town in New England.

Viv is frantic about the hate crime. She convinces Cass to call the police, and pushes her to talk about her feelings.

Cass: I’m a little annoyed. I probably have to get a new paint job, and that sucks. But I thought the whole reason we were calling the police was to let them handle it. [sarcastically] Why be afraid when a cop is on your side? Viv: Now you’re just being mean. Cass: No, I’m just trying to end this conversation. Viv: OK, OK. I get not wanting to -- what’s our action plan? Cass: Our action plan? Viv: Yes!

Viv's well-intentioned action plan goes beyond calling the police. She calls a newspaper, where her sister -- who happens to be a reporter -- picks up the story. Cass doesn't know this until the article gets the attention of the college where she teaches, and is also up for tenure.

It's decided by the college administration that Cass should lead an "equality day."

Dean West comes into Cass's office to deliver the news. It's the best way for Cass to process the hate crime, she tells her. It will be good for students, too. 

The dean is white and in her mid-50s. She's also on Cass's tenure review committee. She understands this is all a little absurd, she tells Cass in a conspiratorial tone. She then sighs, says "equality day" is desperately needed, and delivers a soliloquy about how "we've" been here before: 

Dean West: I thank God every day I went to Howard University for a semester. White people just don’t get it. I really had my eyes opened. I understand the struggle. How traumatizing this must be for you. I would be beside myself if I came to my car and the word "n-----" was on it.

In the performance I saw, there was an audible gasp from someone in the audience.

On stage, Cass appears aghast, though is careful not to show it. Her tenure review is pending.

"I've had many a white people say the N-word around me," Lynett told NEPR. "Not at me, not calling me it, but just saying it."

And Lynett often lets the comments go, she said, very much like the character of Cass, who remains until late in the show remarkably calm about what was written on her car door.

Lynett has heard from some audience members that her characters are caricatures. But she shows Cass's faults. In one scene, Cass lobs a transphobic insult at her best friend, another professor, who is transgender. And while Dean West appears one-dimensional, Lynett said she knows several Dean Wests, and the character is just as trapped as Cass.

"I think people who are not in the academic world gravitate towards different things in the story, rather than the politics of academia. But you can't tell this story without the politics of academia," Lynett said.

Or the current politics of some young people, which Lynett gives the audience through Mara, a college student and a committed activist who wears a t-shirt sporting the word "Woke." Mara is white, Catholic and from the southern part of the U.S., which she tells Cass has "such a history of dealing with [racism]."

From the play:

Mara: I think it makes us more, I don’t know, emotionally available and honest when it comes to how we treat people.

We learn Mara recently wore a hijab to class as an act of solidarity with Muslim students. While discussing the pending "equality day" in Cass's office, it becomes clear Mara never asked anyone who is Muslim if that would be OK.

The intention of "Well Intentioned White People" is not to scoff at the over-the-top things some white people have done in the name of fixing a problem, Lynett said.

"I'm not speaking for all black people," Lynett said. " I'm not speaking for all black people in academia. I'm just speaking for what i saw in the liberal cities that I've been in, and the reaction to things, as these tragic things have happened. We all want to do something. We all feel called to do something."

The hope is that when Viv "types" see the show, maybe next time a friend's car door is keyed with a racist slur, they'll first ask, "What do you need?" instead of making a several-part action plan.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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