I’ve seen a recurring theme in high-profile Broadway plays of late, and at first it made me wonder whether white playwrights had somehow been left out of conversations on portraying race. Then I remembered plenty of movie-makers and writers haven’t really done well lately, either.
Two years ago, I saw and enjoyed August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, which won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. Overall, it was really well done, but there was one big problem: the stoic center around which the family unwinds was a Cheyenne woman hired to be a housekeeper by the family’s patriarch before his disappearance. At the end, the mother, undone by her own maliciousness, is held by the housekeeper, Johnna, who rocks back and forth and sings to her why she cries. Because, obviously, American Indians are closer to the Spirit.
Luckily, I’ll miss out on Letts’s latest play, “Superior Donuts,” in which an aging white man hires a young black man named Franco. From the disappointed New Yorker review by Hilton Als:
And then the cliches come out. Elizabeth gives up her milk for the white family’s baby, literally stepping in the role of mother. The artist makes much of her beauty while she nurses. Moreover, Elizabeth is the only character in the play who’s ever seemed to enjoy sex with her husband. Read: she’s unburdened by civilization’s mores, she can give and receive. She’s strong enough to bear the death of a son. The delicate white woman is so removed from nature she can’t produce her own milk and frets she never could endure such a tragedy. She is weak, the black woman is strong, and we’ve actually seen this play before.
I wish Ruhl had been more careful. You can try to play with stereotypes to subvert them, but this play seems only to rely on them without even knowing it. And it troubles that so few see even a hint of a problem or even know enough to guard against potential ones.