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Monday, May 27, 2013

Words Do Matter in 'The Submission' at Olney

Ari Butler (Pete), Craig Dolezel (Trevor), Lellee Knighten Hough (Emilie)
and Frank DeJulio (Danny) Photo: Stan Barough
Historically there have been tensions between African-Americans and white gay folks that are rooted in race, privilege, and victimization.  Such conflicts emerged during the debates surrounding same-sex marriage when some of the skirmishes centered on the term “civil rights”.  
Although not related to marriage equality, these strains are ignited in The Submission, now playing at the Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Lab.  The venue is smaller than Olney’s Main Stage and, therefore, provides an intimate, personal view of intense conflict with humorous dialogue interspersed especially in the first part.

Jeff Talbott flexed his writing muscles in The Submission that throws political correctness out the window in a provocative, daring, fast-paced play. Director David Elliott deftly allows the four-member ensemble to perform with both intensity and restraint among a cornucopia of emotions contained in Talbott’s script.
Frank DeJulio plays Danny Larson, a white gay man and a graduate from an unnamed university in New Haven, Conn.   He has been distressed that none of his previous four plays have ever been picked up.  But it seems that his latest work about a poor black family trying to escape the projects just might be his ticket to early retirement.  The problem is, as a white middle-class male, he knows he cannot instill credibility in the play because of his disconnect between himself and the subject matter, so he devises a plan—one that the audience knows has zero chance of success with disaster on the horizon.

Danny submits the play under an “African-sounding” female penname (Shaleeha G’ntamobi to be exact) to the career-launching Humana Festival in Louisville.  When shockingly the play is accepted for production, he hires an African-American actress, Emilie, played by Kellee Knighten Hough to stand in for him at the crucial festival.
Suspicious from the start, Emilie accepts the odd assignment mainly because she loves the play and can use the portion of the profits from the production.  Ultimately she loves the attention, too.   But she cannot understand how a man of Danny’s race could describe so accurately the black experience.

What starts out as two people wary of each other but finding this arrangement to be mutually beneficial, it soon devolves into a bitter, combustible war of words laced with f-bombs and worse.  Emilie doesn’t buy into the idea that Danny’s experience as a gay man can equate to that of a black woman, which becomes the core of the conflict.  With that as the heat, incendiary racial and homophobic epithets become the fuel. 
Emilie presents herself as an intelligent, tough young woman who is well-aware and protective of her culture.  Danny seems too self-absorbed to be fully likeable but can elicit some degree of sympathy from his previous failures. Neither one ostensibly appears to be a racist or a homophobe, but in the heat of verbal combat, they turn into just that.  Words do matter.

Photo: Stan Barough
Danny’s straight, even-keeled friend from college, Trevor, played by Craig Dolezel, becomes Emilie’s lover.  He has the unenviable task of attempting to mediate between two people for whom he deeply cares.  One flaw is that Dolezel’s Trevor and Hough’s Emilie lack the chemistry and warmth to be credible as lovers. 
Until the climactic end, Danny gets support from his more affluent partner Pete, played by Ari Butler.  Pete injects some humor into the drama and had his big moment during a surprising temper tantrum near the end that targets “theatre people”.
As supporting actors in the ensemble, Dolezel and Butler, performed well in their roles.  DeJulio is superb, embracing a full range of emotions that was a joy to observe. 

Hough is also magnificent.  She and DeJulio played off each other brilliantly with passion and force —each vehemently defending their own turf with neither willing to yield the last word. 

Emilie is a sturdy character, but even her apparent strength is compromised by her knee-jerk homophobic reactions during the fiery exchanges that nearly cause them to come to blows in the next to last scene.  And Danny’s racist comments are ironic in that his play about black poverty and dreams for a better life so impressed his adversary.
Scenic and Costume Designer Bill Clark crafted a stellar set with two art deco-style walls on both sides of the intimate, compact stage with colorful rectangular panels.  These panels are cleverly used in scene changes whereby a coffee shop sign would be shown in one and then it would flip to a painting to signify Danny and Pete’s apartment.  Pullout-beds augment the apartment and hotel scenes while two small upholstered benches are used to bisect the stage in half.

Scene changes were also marked by Max Krembs’ rock guitar soundtrack, which was a bit loud, and Chris Dallos’ lighting effects.
Talbott’s The Submission is pure dynamite in more ways than one.  It raises lots of issues, such as competing claims of victimhood and that prejudice may dwell at some level in all of us.  He questions whether a playwright or author needs to have the same racial, ethnic or sexual background as the characters to write about them honestly. 

Fortunately, those are not answered in this play.  But it brings these issues to the surface so that the audience can contemplate them and have those conversations after the performance.  With solid directing, acting, staging and a good thought-provoking script, The Submission is highly recommended.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: The Submission contains adult subject matter and a considerable amount of profanity and is not recommended for children.
The Submission plays through June 9 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, MD. For tickets and information call 301-924-3400 or visit online .

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