One of the most succinct morsels of wisdom to emerge from the movement for black lives is this widely circulated quote of uncertain attribution:
“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
This is the motivating impulse in Jeff Talbott’s flawed but noble play “The Submission,” which opened Sept. 16 in the Main Street Cabaret in a co-production of Ujima Theatre and Buffalo United Artists.
It follows the story of a gay, white playwright (Michael Seitz) who submits his new piece about black life in America to a major festival under the assumed identity of a black, female writer. When his play is accepted, Danny, the playwright, hires a black actress named Emilie (Shanntina Moore) to perpetuate the ruse until the play opens.
Danny’s move is what your standard-issue liberal arts professor might call problematic. It emerges from his own false sense of victimhood. After years of writing and submitting plays that have failed to take off, he reasons, his only option is to adopt an entirely different persona and exploit what he views as a rigged system of race-based favoritism.
Emilie, meanwhile, agrees to the charade because she needs the money and she believes in the play. As theatergoers might expect, the production process goes less smoothly than planned and by the time it’s over no one is happy with the outcome.
The production, directed by Lorna C. Hill, starts off strong, especially in its expert handling of Talbott’s often lacerating humor. Supporting cast members Rick Lattimer and Adam Hayes each contribute vital elements. But it soon falls apart under the weight of its subject.
As the frustration between Danny and Emilie mounts, the dialogue and performances become increasingly histrionic and repetitive when they need to become sharper. It is fascinating to watch as Danny’s blithe racism turns overtly vicious, but the emotional impact of that terrible revelation is softened by circuitous writing and performances stuck on maximum volume.
The brilliance of Talbott’s play is its willingness to explore and eventually excoriate the pernicious affliction that is white, male privilege. But without significant tightening, a few more shades of emotional nuance and clarity on some key plot points, its power gets lost in the execution.
2.5 stars (out of four)
Drama presented by Buffalo United Artists and Ujima Theatre in Main Street Cabaret, 1 Curtain Up Alley, through Oct. 2. Tickets are $15 to $25. Info: 886-9239 or buffalobua.org