Back Writing White: A Character Who is an African-American Playwright has Problems Writing for White Chicks in This is Not the Play

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court seems to think we live in a post-racial society, one where there is no longer any race-based prejudice, the facts and Donald Sterling seem to suggest otherwise.

And racial stereotyping is front and center in This is Not the Play by Chisa Hutchinson, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. The format is quite inventive. It begins with a young woman (White Girl 1) on a cluttered stage talking to an unseen person, who we soon learn is the playwright. And the woman on stage is a character the playwright is developing amid the bits and pieces of memory and perception piled up in her own brain.

At first, White Girl 1 (named Indigo by the playwright) seems to acquiesce to the writer's intentions. But in a process all too familiar to writers who have crafted fictional characters, Indigo quickly evolves past the "cute and quirky" gal she's intended to be and develops a mind of her own.

Indeed, the playwright (let's call her PITS for Playwright-In-The-Story, to differentiate her from Hutchinson, the playwright of the play) is bored with this white chick she's fashioned and says she wants Indigo to have a lesbian love interest "to keep me from falling asleep." And then Indigo realizes that her creator is an African-American woman (as is Hutchinson) who is having trouble writing for her white character, and racial issues begin to emerge.

PITS tries to solve the problem by plopping another character onto her stage brain, White Girl 2, who is supposed to be Indigo's lover. But that doesn't go very well since Indigo isn't into gals. Pretty soon the girls go on strike, so PITS' literary agent (a slickly irritating Bobby Coyne) shows up to comment on the proceedings and channel the characters into a salable if clichéd story.

The first half hour of this 70-minute piece is fascinating, as it explores stereotypes with wry humor ("What is it about white girls and horses?"). But the streamlined script goes pear-shaped in the second half when White Girl 2's mother (Laura Starnik) arrives on the scene. After venting some typical mother-daughter tension, mom starts quoting from a couple essays her daughter wrote in college. And a play that seemed fresh and invigorating at the outset suddenly becomes fuzzy and pedantic.

This situation isn't helped much when PITS lands on stage herself, an unnecessary move since she was already a controlling presence in her unseen state. Katrice Headd handles her role as the playwright well. But the unquestioned power and weird vulnerability of the playwright as a character is oddly undermined when she becomes just another person wandering around with her fictional or conjured creations.

The two White Girls, played by Rebecca Frick (1) and Jessica Annunziata (2) never feel entirely fleshed out. This is because they are left unfinished — intentionally or otherwise — by Hutchinson, and then aren't embellished as well as they might be by the actors and director Emily Ritger.

Ritger choreographs the characters well within the small playing space. But by initially having PITS' voice come out of four different speakers from four corners of the theater, it isn't clear that this is just one omnipresent person and not four. That adds unnecessary confusion at the start.

This short play feels like a work in progress: It presents some compelling reflections about racial prejudices as well as the creative process, but doesn't fully explore either. This shortfall is evidenced with brutal clarity in the ending, which is abrupt and essentially a copout by playwright Hutchinson.

It is ironic that, in a play arranged around a playwright's inability to relate to and control her characters as well as her own thoughts, the real playwright shies away from some of the hard truths on which she touches.

this is not the play

Through May 31 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727,

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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