But for the Grace... & Trading Races


by Morgan Lindsey Tachco · May 27, 2014


Indie Artists on New Plays #98  Morgan Lindsey Tachco comments on two shows at Planet Connections: But For the Grace...   & Trading Races Playwright and actor David Eliet was commissioned by the Rhode Island Community Food bank to write this one-person play, centered on the lives of individuals who volunteer for, and are clients of, a local food bank. We are brought into the lives of a community of ordinary, hard-working Americans of many ages and backgrounds. Their reasons for making use of this service are plentiful. The majority of them are overworked and underpaid, or for whatever reason differently-abled, therefore mentally or physically and unable to work at least enough to put food on the table. These characters truly are the 99%.

But for the Grace… is well researched and affectionately told. Eliet shares staggering facts about the hunger epidemic in the United States in between sharing the character’s stories. One fact in particular he continues to drive home is the rate at which women and children of all backgrounds are affected by this epidemic; in 2012, 35.4% of all single mother households in the US were food insecure, relying on some form of assistance to feed their families.

Eliet gives a compelling performance as he brings us into the lives of these individuals who could otherwise be simply case files. It’s a pleasure to watch the performer take on these clients and volunteers, from a young boy to a traumatized veteran to an elderly jobless Russian woman – whose honored scholarship of English Literature in her own country is reduced to being considered as having a lack of skill in ours.

These stories weren’t retold verbatim from interviews, and I don’t think they have to be. Still, I was left wondering where the narrator was situated in the piece. The script has a tone that can feel over sentimental at times; his sole goal here seems to make us aware of just how appalling the hunger epidemic is, which, although it was a lovely performance that got us there, leaves the audience feeling shameful and guilty.

As a person who could have been considered ‘food insecure’ for several years in my youth, (and so admittedly not the prime audience to which ‘awareness’ needs to be raised), But for the Grace… left me wondering how helpful that thesis is at this point. 21% of all children living in the United States go hungry every day, and our guilt isn’t helping them. I would have loved to leave the theater with a few thoughts from the playwright, having done this deeply meaningful work in this community, as to what could.

As presented in the Planet Connections Theater Festivity, proceeds from this production benefit the Food Bank for New York:

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In Michelle T. Johnson’s Trading Races, civilization as we know it is about to end. Two abstractions, representing every person who has ever lived of either the white or black races respectively, have been charged with the task of stopping the collapse by resolving their differences. The black abstraction takes the form of a black woman called Eve, and the white abstraction takes the form of a white male, who would like to be called Bill Clinton. Eve calls him Billy for short. Rounding out the cast of characters are Hispanic man, Asian man, White woman and Black man. Making appearances are Bi-Racial girl and Weeping Hawk, a Native American female, as the deity who holds the fate of civilization.

Trading Races is a challenge. Billed as, “a bold look at how we relate to each other in the realm of racial identity,” the audience is confronted with a host of boiled down stereotypes of racial representation. Billy’s arguments are infused with misogyny in addition to being a defender of white supremacy, and Weeping Hawk briefly appears in nearly every Native American trope imaginable. I believe this is an effort to be subversive, but these representations come across as being ill considered.

Unfortunately, the characters’ arguments aren’t nuanced enough to represent a fraction of the multitude of perspectives on this subject matter. Centuries of critical thought and activism are boiled down to mimicry of charged and opposing blog rants, akin to a particularly contentious Facebook feed. I am not suggesting that the discussion in Trading Races needs to be solely academic. But to omit scholarly perspective all together seems irresponsible.

Diversity in casting seemed to be considered. Melanie Matthews gives a notable performance as Eve, providing a welcome emotional pragmatism to the subject matter, as did Jack Drummond as Hispanic man, bookending the play with a soulful original violin composition.

I will take the invitation to be challenged to use discomfort as a point of reference for internal emotional work yet to be done, or the challenge of hearing and discussing racial discord to the best of my ability. I am very interested in the potential opportunities for discussion and insight in theater about racial identity. The philosophy of Trading Races seems to be that deep down we all live in fear, everyone wants to ‘win,’ and no matter how hard we try it will never be enough. If this is as deep as we’re willing to go, it won’t.

As presented in the Planet Connections Theater Festivity, proceeds from this production benefit the Ali Forney Center:

 

 

 

 

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