Addison — “I think you should submit the fuck out of it,” says the eager gay playwright’s trusted straight buddy over coffee in the opening scene of The Submission, Jeff Talbott’s play about a play (which we never see) about the trials of an alcoholic black mother. The wily writer sends his script to the famous Humana Festival of New American Plays under what he hopes is the jury-friendly pen name of Shaleeha Gantamobi. C’mon. Really?
Really. So what’s darlin’ white Danny (a sharp-featured, emotionally histrionic Ryan Maffei) to do when his play is accepted and he’s invited to the playfest? Hire a black actress named Emilie (sassy, sexy Whitney LaTrice Coulter), that’s what. She could “be” Danny all through the production process, until opening night, and then admit she’s just his sex-and-color-appropriate stand-in. Right? Director Stefany Cambra gets the timing and mounting indignation just right in Proper Hijinx Productions’ production of the 2011 satire that presses a number of political and artistic hot buttons. (We caught a day before the show closed.)
Everybody that reads Danny’s latest script, which is never actually seen or quoted, thinks he’s finally come up with something doable. It’s got four characters and one set, for one thing, just like the 100-minute show we’re watching. Got that? And it’s got urban poverty and drugs.
The question posed in this self-referential, clever and issue-laden play is whether a gay white dude has the right to portray the “pain” of a black woman living in the projects. Is Danny a middle-class voyeur exploiting the tragedy of the poor because he overheard a story on the subway? (Actually, he sort of projects the story when he hears a black kid comment that his nifty sneaks look like “what a homo would wear.”) Or is Danny’s scam justified in an American theater scene he believes is loaded in the direction of Affirmative Action over native talent? Can we tell true stories across racial and economic lines? Who owns fiction, anyway?
True, the plot is a bit outlandish. What needy, neurotic writer would give up ownership of his words, even temporarily, to “legitimize” a work he thinks might otherwise wither on the dead script pile? Hmmm. Still, the set-up does give us some fun, fiery verbal encounters, particularly when Maffei’s charming Danny first presents his imposter scheme to Coulter’s wary but curious Emilie. What’s wild is that these two ambitious, artsy types don’t anticipate the screwball mess they’re stirring into being. Boil, boil, indeed.
As the play progresses, with Cambra’s elegantly layered scene-on-scene ease, we see effusive Emilie gradually “owning” the play, as she reports via phone to an increasingly fraught Danny who is concerned about her interactions with the famed director assigned to the premiere production. Perhaps his use of the n-word is offensive. The hand wringing here is a telling argument slicing and dicing political and marketing correctness.
Meanwhile, back in their real lives, Danny is still sweetie-kissy with his tidy accountant partner Pete (a dutifully fem Dustin Curry), and Emile has fallen for Danny’s hunky straight besty Trevor (dirty blonde and dishy Sterling Gafford).
What’s cool and fun about this entertaining play is Talbott’s slick, hip, fast-moving dialogue. Whether Emilie is arguing with Danny about the decimal level of white male gay pain over black female pain, or allowing her sumptuously physical self to be seduced by Trevor’s imploring phone sex, the play makes you feel like you’ve overheard something swirling in the winds of the moment. It's especially prescient after the controversy with the Edward Albee estate, and other issues with race-conscious casting and the idea of who tells someone else's story?
The sense of being there is mesmerizing, but as the ownership battle between Danny and Emily accelerates, we are so bombarded over and over with the fury and biases of the two leads that they cease being people and start being mouthpieces for a specific position. Coulter is so feisty and in-your-face as Emilie that she her character survives the racial rhetoric she delivers. Still, the high-decibel argument goes on too long and we begin to feel we are listening to a couple of drama school brats languishing to long after graduating.
The showdown feels a little anticlimactic, since we know from the get-go that Danny’s use of the n-word and Emily’s angry use of the f-word are too ugly for civilized debate. But who says we’re living in a world where civil debate wins the prize—or the election?
The show allows you to gauge your racial and social prejudices in an imagined situation. That’s theater doing one of its jobs.