The new play “When We Were Colored” mixes romantic love and family associations of the central couple, Eva and Bill Rutland, Ginger’s parents, with the history of American race relations in the last 70 years. Despite the potentially explosive issues, the play mostly handles its topics with a gentle touch, never punching the audience when a situation arises.
Directed by Stephen Eich, the play recently had its world premier at the Sacramento Theatre Company. It’s an autobiographical play written by Sacramento’s Ginger Rutland, whose character (Brooklyn Solomon) has the role of narrator and interpreter of her mother’s story. We trace their family’s growth with a series of short scenes, stitched together by the narrator, Ginger, often in a bit prosaic and intrusive role that doesn’t add much to the play’s forward motion. The family moved from the Jim Crow South to suburban Sacramento when the father Bill transferred to Mather Air Force base in the 1950s. Thus the theatergoer will hear many familiar local references, not just Mather, but Breuner’s and the long-defunct Woolworth’s.
The daughter Ginger at the opening of Act II is pitted against her black parents as she returns from Howard University in 1968. To her they seem complacent, lost in a racial past where “colored” defined their identities: now the current designation is “black.” The title reminds us of how the designations for America’s most prominent minority have changed over the years, partly out of perception, partly out of self-reinvention: from colored, to black, to African-American. These changing designations are echoed in the play’s title, in the C in NAACP that her father mentions in a mild threat, as well as in the white announcer’s confused introduction of Ginger’s mother at a book event questioning whether it is Black History month or Afro-American History month.
Ginger rails against her board of trustees, investments in South Africa, the Vietnam war — familiar themes not only of black, but of all student protest. Yet her stridency is made ridiculous by the extremity of her arguments. Her father Bill notes that the institutions she challenges and the parents she critiques are paying her expensive tuition. Were we all so absurd in our newly found radical demands when we confronted the parents who were paying our college bills?
Despite its racial themes, the play is gentle in its politics because it is essentially a fond family story. When it protests, it protests gently; it is not the crisis-driven catharsis of works like “Native Son” or “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s familiar and comforting, even if there are honest and poignant reminders of the recent history of American racism.
We see the Rutlands encounter racist prohibitions to buying real estate, see the limits set on their job aspirations, see their daughter initially placed in a class for “dumb” ethnic students. Her parents confront the white administrator with her excellent grades and stratospheric scores on standardized tests, and the administrator, after some bureaucratic babble and obfuscation, concedes. The racism here is so blatant that this temporary triumph seems almost trivial. To emphasize the contexts, the set is frequently flanked on both sides by large blow-up photos from family albums as well as representations of key historical events, as a photo of Harry Truman, the president who integrated the military, and the vanished Sacramento Woolworth’s.
The performances of Bill (Michael Asberry) and Eva (Nathalie Bennett) are convincing and intriguing, and meld well. When Bill first appears, he assures us he’s a ghost: after all, the play originates after his death. But he is revered and loved and emerges perhaps as the play’s most attractive character. Bill is especially commanding, assured, solid. He is aware of racism, but he’s rarely confrontational; he’s practical. He acts like a very confident boxer who seems to know he is going to defeat his next opponent. And he always has a sense of humor, as when he stands behind Eva and offers all sorts of mocking (but kind) gestures about some of her beliefs.
Eva also transforms herself remarkably from the feeble blind aging mother at the opening to the vibrant, flirtatious young woman who attracted Bill, simply by taking off the glasses that conceal her failing eyes, removing a shapeless housedress and emerging from a chair to add a spring to her step.
These confident performances of the central characters are complemented admirably by those of Elizabeth Springett and Steven Thomas. They portray a multitude of white characters in an amazing and effective range of supporting and conflicting roles, some with irony, some with sternness, some with absurdity: a sympathetic Southern cracker, a teacher, a racist principal, a racist waitress, several military officers and just about everything else. Lauryn Taylor-Piazza plays several generations of Rutland children, one far too sentimentally, but another very effectively as the granddaughter who matter-of-factly explains to Bill she is going this year to identify herself as “white” on a school form.
The racism incorporated here is real and believable but not always predictable and rarely incendiary. In an early scene of the couple’s courtship in the South, Bill, having grown up in Detroit, is forced to pull over and change a tire, but his wrench fails, while Eva seeks a place to relieve herself. A redneck approaches from down the road and Eva, Southern born, cautions Bill to say, “Sir.” But this man offers no threat, merely tools, fixes the tire, charges nothing. In many ways there’s a great deal of comfort in this play.
The intellectual challenge to the theatergoer may not be forceful, but the play does leave us with warm feelings as the romantic principals dance away at the end into heaven.
If You Go
“When We Were Colored”
Where: Sacramento Theater Company, 1419 H St
When:: Through April 28., shows are Wednesday through Sunday
Cost: $20 to $38
Tickets: www.tickets.sactheatre.org or 916-443-6722.