By LIZ BYRON. Frequently it seems that a play is either insightful and poorly staged, or else fluffy and well staged. Time after time do I get the impression that it’s an either..or.. deal: either you get a thought-provoking script that raises important questions, or you get a well-acted, well-directed performance. It was with delight, then, that I left the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre after seeing Raise Your Voice (Suzanne Cross): That F—ing Harriet Tubman Play; this was one of those rare plays that was insightful and entertaining and well done. In fact, my only real complaint was that the title is unwieldy, and even that is less “real complaint” and more “minor gripe”.
The play, produced by Little Lifeboats Company, is really a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. In the actual play, actors Suzanne (Suzanne Cross), Victoria (Victoria Pyan), and Alsa (Alsa Bruno) are in rehearsal for a play about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, written and directed by their well-intentioned but clueless friend Aaron (Aaron Konigsmark). In addition to having cast a white woman as Harriet and a black woman as white nurse and humanitarian Clara, Aaron has cast his friend Alsa as a black pilgrim who rides a plastic toy train to represent the Underground Railroad. When confronted about his casting choices, he insists he is “colour-blind” and is being “avant gard” with his race-crossing decisions. Caught right in the middle of this mess is Suzanne, who has to deal not only with the question of race, but also with the voice in her head (Comfort Dolo) who is constantly challenging and questioning Suzanne’s life choices.
At times, the characters address Abby Swafford, the actual playwright of Raise Your Voice, complaining that their lines or actions are unrealistic or untrue to their real selves. Done differently, this could come off as too clever, or maybe confusing, but between strong performances by the cast and some well thought-out lighting and sound choices, these changes are easy to follow and effective.
Raise Your Voice asks a lot of questions about bodies and representation. Why would it be “avant gard” for a white woman to play a black woman — and not just any black woman, a hero. F—ing Harriet Tubman, to quote the title! Why are there so few roles for black actors, anyway? Particularly when there are so many plays with roles that needn’t be race-specific? Sure, casting an actor of colour to play Queen Elizabeth I of England would be making a statement, but in casting the role of “Joe, a lawyer”, does it matter? I, personally, would really like to see more actors of colour in roles that aren’t centered around their race — an argument I’ve made for LGBT characters as well (can’t there be a character who just happens to be bisexual, without it being a play about bisexuals, for example?). In fact, there is a moment in Raise Your Voice when Alsa, dressed in his ridiculous pilgrim costume, talks about being an actor and a black man, and comments wryly that there aren’t exactly an abundance of roles for him in the Twin Cities… and the audience laughed, much to my confusion. I assume they were laughing because they were uncomfortable with this unpleasant truth, because it certainly isn’t funny.
The issue of racial disparity doesn’t end with casting choices, though. At one point, Suzanne asks Victoria, “Why do you always feel the need to stand up for me?” [paraphrased] and begins, for presumably the first time in their years of friendship, a conversation about how race affects their interactions. This strikes a chord for me, honestly, as a white woman. Are the things I do and say as helpful and as promoting of equality as I think they are? When should I speak up and when is it not my place? How can I make a positive change without making it “all about me” when it really isn’t? As you watch Suzanne try to find the balance between speaking up for herself and focusing her whole life around her skin colour, and watch Victoria face the unpleasant possibility that she has more privilege than she had thought, it’s hard not to consider your own role in this situation… and you shouldn’t resist. This is something that pretty much everybody should give more thought.
But white privilege isn’t the only kind that comes under scrutiny in Raise Your Voice. What about body size/shape? Victoria, clad only in a red-and-white bathing suit, gives a compelling speech about the struggles she has as a plus-sized actor in live theatre. As a plus-sized person in the world, really. And here, again, I wonder why casting is so frequently done the way it is. If a character in a play is a certain size for a reason, I get that. It would be an odd choice to cast a short, rotund man in the role of a professional basketball player, after all. But why is it that in almost every case, a character is cast as thin unless that character is specifically fat (more often than not for comical reasons. Because we all know fat people are hilarious.)? Very likely, this is just a magnified, more explicit kind of discrimination than exists in the rest of the world. And it makes no more sense in theatre than it does elsewhere; again, why can’t “Joe, a lawyer” just happen to be chubby?
So, in conclusion, go see this play. It’s just over an hour long, so you’ll have plenty of time to have a drink and talk it over with your friends afterward. It’s entertaining, it’s thought-provoking, tickets aren’t expensive ($12-20 sliding scale), you can drink a beer or eat dinner while you watch it (yay Bryant-Lake Bowl!), and… it’s just good. Trust me, it’s good.
Raise Your Voice (Suzanne Cross): That F—ing Harriet Tubman Play, by Abby Swafford, September 4-19, 2014 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl at 810 W. Lake Street, Minneapolis. Tickets $12-20 (sliding scale) at http://www.bryantlakebowl.com/theater or by calling (612) 825-8949.