Oct. 7 2015 11:18 AM

Race relations take center stage in MSU’s latest production

Baltimore promo Color-
“Baltimore,” at MSU Department of Theatre, tells the story of a college residence hall rocked by a racist incident. (Left to right: Kristy Allen, Han "Heidi" Nguyen-Tran, and Rachel Beck)
Photo by Kellyn Uhl
It doesn’t start with a neighborhood watch shooting, a police beating or a burning cross. It starts with a drawing on a whiteboard. Yet in the residence hall microcosm of “Baltimore,” the event is as incendiary as those headline-grabbing stories, thrusting a group of freshmen into a debate they would have rather ignored.

MSU Department of Theatre’s production takes place at a generic American university, inhabited by the diverse body of students found at most colleges. Shelby (Imani Bonner) is a resident assistant who is ill-equipped to do that job. In the third week of fall semester, she gets thrust into a racially charged scenario. While Shelby fumbles her way through an awkward interview with a dean (Kristy Allen) who is known for her work in social justice, one of her freshmen charges has drawn an inappropriate caricature of another on a whiteboard in the dorm hallway.

Perpetrator Fiona (Christi Thibodeau) is defensive, manipulative and clueless. Thibodeau is phenomenal in a thankless role, catwalking about the stage and brandishing her “it was just a joke” excuse in true mean girl style, oblivious to her white privilege.

The trap that playwrights can fall into when forging a piece around burning social issues is that the dialogue can become preachy and trite. Kirsten Greenidge avoids this by creating a very real central character who is as confused and frustrated by race issues as the audience. Shelby wants a world in which race doesn't matter so badly that she puts blinders on and pretends it’s already true. She rejects the viewpoints of elders and peers who insist that race is an issue. When the stuff hits the fan, she goes AWOL, leaving her charges to deal with it themselves.

Director Joni Starr has created a perfectly executed black box experience with this world premiere production. The running time is an efficient 90 minutes, keeping it from becoming bloated in self-righteousness. The set and props are sleek and versatile, allowing for quick scene changes. The cast is solid — although one would expect a millennial cast to easily embody characters much like themselves. The breakout here is Allen as the middle-aged Dean Hernandez. With the mature authority that Allen brings to the role, one could easily see her sliding into the district attorney seat in an episode of “Law and Order.”

The script is fresh but also a bit frustrating, although that is a selfish assessment. Greenidge does such an excellent job of covering the complexity of contemporary race relations that one expects her to provide a solution at the end. Wrap it up with a pretty bow and deliver some words of wisdom to the world that will fix everything.

Spoiler alert: There are no easy answers in real life, so Greenidge cannot provide a tidy denouement that makes it all better. She can, however, give voice to our collective frustration through Shelby, who points out that “everyone is rocking the boat because no one is capable of steering it.”


MSU Department of Theatre 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7-Thursday, Oct. 8; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11 $15/$13 faculty and seniors/$10 students. Studio 60 Theatre 542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing. (517) 353-1982, whartoncenter.com

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