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Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter

Spinning Into Butterby Thomas Durkin

Fortunately for the Milwaukee art community, the Off-Broadway Theatre (342 N. Water St.), had the courage to stage Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning Into Butter. Gilman’s play, set at a small liberal college in Vermont, confronts the insidious nature of racism while also exploring how political correctness can be a destructive agent in dealing with racism. The play opens with Dean Sarah Daniels (Jacque Troy) meeting with a student, Patrick Chibas (Julio Pabon), about a scholarship for an outstanding minority applicant. Patrick, who describes himself as Nuyorican, agrees, after much prodding, to allow Sarah to check a box describing him as Puerto Rican. For Patrick, sacrificing his ethnicity–initially–is worth the financial scholarship. Later he realizes the actual “price” he paid for that scholarship. Sarah, on the other hand, does not see the importance Patrick places on his ethnicity. She only sees the bottom line related to the value of the scholarship. She sees herself as helping Patrick, but her mindset is that he needs help because he is a person of color. Until Patrick confronts her by saying, “You don’t even know who I am,” Sarah views him only as underprivileged kid who needs her help. Around this time, an African-American student receives threatening letters in his dorm room. As the administration blunders in its attempt to find the guilty party, Sarah starts to confront the racist assumptions she harbors. Reflecting upon her time at a diverse Chicago university, she says, “When you come face-to-face with a lot of just regular black people, you can’t aestheticize them anymore. They’re too damn scary.” The play hits an emotional apex when Sarah examines her own racism in describing how she looks for seats on the train. She nearly breaks down in explaining that she first looks for a white woman to sit next to. If that option is not available, she looks for a white man. Next, she searches for a black woman and, only as a last resort, she would sit down next to a black man, though not one with a “puffy coat.” Sarah’s admission catches her colleague and ex-lover, Ross Collins (Stephen Roselin), as well as the audience completely off-guard. After all, she’s supposed to be this liberal thinking proponent of diversity. More importantly, Sarah is rattled by her own confession. She admits, “I’m fully aware that black people have agency and are responsible and can help themselves, but I think they don’t do it because they’re lazy and stupid.” Sarah realizes just how limited her own views are. More than anything, Sarah is horrified about these realizations. In her honesty, the audience may have seen a glimpse of themselves. Are we guilty of similar acts of stereotyping? Do we tend to help people because of some sense of self-righteousness? Spinning Into Butter is both infuriating and illuminating because it focuses on the problems related to categorizing people based on race and then trying to appropriately label individuals based on ethnicity. The failure of language in addressing race issues becomes apparent as each character struggles to put their thoughts into words. Ultimately, what does become maddeningly clear is that we must first be honest with ourselves and confront our own prejudices if we are to confront racism in our society. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
by Thomas Durkin

Spinning Into Butter