Racism. The word plagues this country and wreaks fear into the hearts of every person. But can a white person experience racism? This question is at the heart of Cheryl L. Davis’ emotionally charged new play, Carefully Taught produced by the Astoria Performing Arts Center.
When a white teacher is fired over a black teacher, simply because she is white, is she the victim of racism? When Claire is fired, she decides to sue the school board claiming discrimination. But what makes matters worse is that Alice, her friend and co-worker, did not get fired in her place. Alice is African American. As a result of the impending law suit, all hell breaks loose at the school and reaches the national level. But Alice and Claire are determined to remain friends throughout the ordeal. However, Alice and Claire are also parents and their children attend the same school. The tension rises between everyone as the play progresses, creating a chasm that may be irreparable.
Although there are many characters in this play, the production utilizes only four actors to tell the story, each playing multiple roles. Sheila Joon plays Claire, the white teacher who gets fired. She is fiery and outspoken, but also with a tender vulnerability that makes her delightful to watch in this role. Joon also plays Valerie, a bright African American girl who is the daughter of Alice. Alice is played by Latoya Edwards. She hides her true feelings well and lets her love for Claire win. But underneath her facade a storm is brewing. Edward plays this multilevel character excellently Edwards doubles as Charlotte, the white daughter of Claire. The connection between these two women is palpable and their ability to play each others yin and yang is commendable. Bristol Pomeroy shape shifts between three characters very well, sometimes within the same scene! Esther Chen, who plays two characters, rounds out the cast nicely.
Despite strong performances by the ensemble, the production suffers from too many lengthy scene changes. The episodic nature of the piece is problematic as it interrupts the flow of the play and makes it hard to stay invested continuously. Also, since there is so much doubling and tripling of roles, it becomes tedious to remember who is who. While, I like blurring the lines between race, I can’t help but wonder whether or not it would have made the play clearer and easier to follow if different actors played the children of the teachers.
These things aside, this play makes you think and that is a great thing. So I ask you this; can a white person experience racism? If so, is affirmative action a racist policy? These questions need to be addressed. We have a knot in our stomach throughout much of the play and we see the many ways that this crisis can be interpreted. You never truly know whose side your on and you find yourself switching sides many times throughout. With its important and timely issues brought to light, Carefully Taught, is definitely a piece of theater that matters!
Carefully Taught plays now through November 21, 2015 at the Astoria Performing Arts Center, 30-18 Crescent St. http://www.APACNY.org