Riverwalk Theatre’s 35th season opener had me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. The 75-minute show galloped through a hilarious, harrowing story of an elite white liberal family’s hypocrisy and the incredibly high price of transforming our world for the better.
Originally produced in 2018 in New York City, Joshua Harmon’s script won multiple awards, even as national reviewers labeled the show as “aggressively provocative,” unacceptable and generally upsetting. After the murder of George Floyd, and in the capable directorial hands of Bob Robinson, I found this production to be an incisive inquiry not only into race and privilege but into the incredible promise and terrifying pitfalls of youth.
The show opens with a metaphor for the larger issue at hand: The admissions catalog for an elite prep school is not racially diverse enough. Admissions officer Sherri Rosen-Mason (Emily Clark) has spent her career working to increase the percentage of students of color at her school. Her colleague Roberta (Jane Zussman) “doesn’t see color,” and their funny, offensive and awkward conversation is just the beginning of a show that sparkles with anger and urgency as it reinvents the classic living-room drama for a new generation.
One of the paradoxes of this play is that it poses a serious question about racial representation, but every character is white. That means that the cast grasps at an elephant that never actually enters the room. Far from a failure of the script, this presents a meaningful and unique opportunity to analyze the way white people approach — or run from — racial equity work.
Heath Sartorius shines as young Charlie, the son of two white progressives who angrily and doggedly tries to make sense of his privileged upbringing and the complex reality of race in the run-up to the 2016 election. His teenaged tirades are, at times, disgusting expressions of white supremacy — I heard more than a few gasps in the audience — but the actor’s command of his character’s vulnerability and fragility manage to arouse both empathy and fear. He’s just a stupid kid, yet he’s so dangerous. His character’s arc has a surprise twist, and it’s one of the most interesting stories I’ve seen all year.
Charlie’s parents, played by Clark and Jeff Kennedy, are the foil to their son’s anger in their self-assured, middle-aged comfort. But even their calm confidence begins to crack as they have to face what will become of their only child. Neighbor Ginny Peters (Colleen Bethea) plays the white mother of a biracial son who is Charlie’s best friend. Bethea’s acting wows as her character goes toe-to-toe with Clark, and the two women show us how and where white people draw lines when it comes to race.
Kudos to Riverwalk for expert production, casting and script selection. I highly recommend you see this show before the theater moves on to the next.
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
2 p.m. Sunday
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
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