All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Rather than go into depth, playwright Stacie Lents confined her play about racial tensions on campus to two related stories, one taking place in 1964, when attention towards civil rights was building momentum towards lasting change, and in 2016, when being paired in a college dormitory with someone of another race, is barely noticed, let alone news.
The same room, 52 years apart in a Northeast U.S. liberal arts college is Lents’s setting. The earlier set of roommates are men, each of whom has to agree to share their personal space with someone of a different race before they were paired. Lents points out economic and experiential differences between the men as well. The second set are women who just happen to be selected to share a room and whose major difference seems to be sophistication and interest in joining a campus sorority. It’s interesting that tension breaks out between the two women sooner than it affects the two men. Race may not always be the crux of an issue, but it always turns out to be part of the conflict that keeps the dorm room from being the most peaceful or comfortable place on campus.
Lents makes her point through her stories. One leitmotif is all of the black characters, the roommates and a visitor played in both eras by Kevis Hillocks, talk about never being able to forget or dismiss they are black. Whether dealing with other black students on their roommates, aware of race is a constant. Skin pigmentation can be dismissed as evolutionarily mandated based on coping with direct sun exposure in prehistoric times. It becomes a badge that is immediately visible and cannot be taken for granted.
The males in “College Colors” are more stereotypical in concept and portrayal than the women. Each of the male roommates is as keenly aware of racial difference as the black characters are throughout. In the women, the lines of race are blurred at the beginning with the black roommate’s breeding and maturity standing out against her white counterpart’s awkward naivety and silliness. The guys are Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. meets Theo Huxtable while the women are like Brenda Patimkin vs. Amy Farrah Fowler, the iconic Ali MacGraw character from “Goodbye Columbus” this time being black.
The men look at themselves as pioneers, the women as two people who share a room. As Wakeema Hollis’s sharp and together Tanya says to the Gillian Mariner Gordon’s whiny, envious Julie, they only have to sleep in the same room. They do not have to be friends.
Conflicts are greater between the two men. Their personalities and their attitudes towards study and future possibilities add to the tension, Matt Maretz’s cute, confident, complacent Michael has gone to a prep school, knows the right people, and will probably get a job through connections no matter what his grades are or what kind of experience he has in college. Andrew Manning’s deep-thinking and easily wounded Aaron sees his ordeals at the university as a preamble to later life and is not as happy-go-lucky and matter-of-fact as Michael.
How could he be? Aaron is a groundbreaker. He’s a Jackie Robinson among the students at his school. He stands out, and he is subjected to prejudice. Mean, cruel prejudice that Involve degrading and unsanitary pranks played against him. Aaron does have the temperament of Mr. Robinson. He has not been vetted by Branch Rickey to see if he can withstand the abuse he might receive and sail through it without reacting to it.
For the men, the issue is whether Michael, who purports to be Aaron’s friend and who volunteered to have a black roommate, will watch Aaron’s back and be his friend, both as the one who knows him best, for qualities as well as insecurities, and as someone who claims to like him in spite of some petty squabbles of a kind most roommates will have, a sock in the wrong drawer, some garment left on the other’s bed.
The women’s disagreement is more subtle but more out in the open. Aaron cannot expect a social life in a college he is, with few others, de facto integrating. That’s just a sad, ugly truth of 1964, and Lents doesn’t attempt to hide it. In 2016, diversity is considered to be a given. Tanya and Julie basically have different backgrounds and different tastes when they meet, Tanya’s being the broader and more elegant. Tanya is indifferent, perhaps even disdainful, of joining a sorority to meet people. When she walks in the room and sees Julie with Greek recruitment brochures all over her bed, she is amused and sarcastic.
As will happen in plays, a conversion takes place when Tanya, for a lark and to quiet Julie down, and goes to some introductory parties at sororities, including at a primarily black sorority. Tanya discovers a brave new world. Raised in wealth in an integrated world, she is surprised to find she has much in common with the black sorority women and that many are compatible with her in significant ways, including being an ear for matters that are primarily racial and, most critically, losing track for once in her life of having dark skin. Tanya is drawn to the sorority and finds not just acceptance, but company, there. It becomes the center of her campus life. Julie, who has not been asked to pledge to any sorority, of any level of diversity, becomes jealous and petty and adds race to her mix of scorn even though race is not the issue. Julie is. As Tanya tells her, Julie can overcome being white. No one cares, and it might be useful for her to experience the self-consciousness Tanya says she feels as a minority. Julie just isn’t hip enough, to use a ’60s word for current times. Her styling is more childish, and so are her interests. Julie is a girl among women, and she resents that black women in particular, see that and ask Tanya not to bring her to movies and dances. Lents makes it clear that Julie doesn’t have a raft of white friends. In spite of that, Julie focuses on race as what separates her from Tanya.
Lots to think about, huh?
Yes. Lents has woven interesting stories. “College Colors” engages you and makes you want to see outcomes. I mention in the beginning of this now tome-like blurb that Lents’s play is not deep. That is its weakness. It sticks well to the material chosen, but it doesn’t give the impression that Michael and Aaron or Tanya and Julie are having experiences paralleled throughout the United States. Some ideas, like Tanya’s assertion about always being aware she’;s black, ring as universal. Most of what happened to the roommates in isolated to “College Colors.” It gives an entertaining and thoughtful look at university race relations at different times, but it is not thought-provoking. It touches on a many-layered topic without getting to the heart of it.
Lents adds complications to both stories. Michael is more concerned about how classmates describe him than he is about supporting Aaron and making some headway towards racial parity. The revelation in his story is quite a surprise, and quite well written by Lentz, but it is a bump in an otherwise smooth narrative road rather than being an eye-opener or a incident that sheds light on race relationships in 1964. (Although this detour explains why Michael, against all likeliness, would tell the school he’s amenable to a black roommate and can show ulterior movement out-trumped hatred of bigotry or the idiocy of segregation to foment what looked like a forward-thinking decision.)
The contemporary story doesn’t have the kind of upheaval Lents gives her 1964 tale. The author shows that racism is more subtle. In 1964, the students that taunt Aaron, mostly prep school grads, target his race, make him the “other,” “the different,” “the exotic.” In 2016, race becomes the rationale for why something happens. Julie is a minority in Tanya’s social setting, but she might be more accepted if she could hold her liquor, didn’t gush over childish things, and had more poise with men. She is the white outsider, but her pale skin would not engender talk or prejudice if Julie wasn’t such a dork who doesn’t understand she is not mature enough to be accepted. It is Julie who decides race has to be the only barrier, and as Aaron wonders why Michael, since they initially get along, doesn’t try to help him and say, “Yo, he’s my friend. Lay off.” Julie is certain Tanya rejects her because she is white.
The stories are involving on their own. You certainly enjoy seeing all that goes on in “College Colors.” Kevin Kittle has directly scenes to be immediate and to allow characters to give vent to how they are feeling. What you don’t get is a sense of importance or breakthrough. “College Colors” is a pleasant, engaging watch. It doesn’t force you to leave Crossroads in deep thought. There’s energy and controversy but no intensity. Even the ironic ending provides more charm than texture. “College Colors” depicts what we know. It doesn’t introduce us to a problem and challenge us to keep tinkering with society until we get it right.
Wakeema Hollis is excellent as Tanya. You can see her intelligence and self-assurance the minute the lights go up on Lents’s play. Tanya is sympathetic towards Julie to a point, and you can see Hollis working, appropriately, at keeping Tanya calm and fair when Julie is off on one of her accusatory tantrums. You see the point at which Tanya determines this door has to be closed. Small incidents, like Julie begrudging Tanya her M&M’s, grow to big incidents, such as Julie not being able to accept Tanya dating a rather dapper man, who it turns out, was adopted and raised in a white family.
Hollis sets the tone for the women’s segments. She gives Lents’s play the gloss with which Lents endowed her character.
Andrew Manning seethes under his skin as Aaron. He is cognizant of everything and has to make judgments on boyish teasing he is willing to let go by and assaults to his dignity. You can see Manning as a stranger in a hostile territory. Aaron, a teenager still, can never let down his guard. He lives the awareness of being black Tanya says is absent when she is with her sorority sisters.
Manning wears Aaron’s emotions on his sleeve. He doesn’t try to hold things in the way Hollis does as Tanya. Everything about Aaron is on the surface, even his thought processes. Lents gives Aaron a bit more texture than she does her other characters, because as he considers which slights to ignore and which to address, he is angry and hurting. Aaron is a young man. He hasn’t learned that revenge is not always an eye for an eye, and it’s absorbing to see Manning grappling with what to do. And to see how Aaron changes when he knows he’s gone too far in one of his reactions.
Matt Maretz shows the callowness and duplicity of Michael. You don’t know at once that Michael is fair-weather and opportunistic. At first you think he’s a little touchy and fey, a kind of spoiled brat who takes no aspect of life very seriously but can manage appearances when a situation calls for it.
Maretz shows you Michael is curious about Aaron, even a bit fascinated by hi, when they first and he tries to be conciliatory in almost condescending, “oh, what a good boy am I” way He also gives a juvenile playfulness to the character who has some wild cards to play.
Gillian Mariner Gordon melts into the scenery at Julie. That’s a good thing. Gordon looks less as if she’s acting Julie than that she’s embodying her. She has just the right amount of immaturity to make Julie awkward and socially backward rather than obnoxious or just plain undesirable. Julie came to college with a vision, probably from movies, of what university life would be, especially from a social point of view. She’s join a sorority, and friends would abound. When she sees Tanya enjoying just what she was expecting but is being denied, it affects her in ways that are also immature and over-reactive.
Kevis Hillocks aces his both of his parts, one as fairly suave, self-possessed young man who likes being with a beautiful woman and has lofty ambitions, the other as common street hustler who is funny and glib as well as being threatening and pointedly disrespectful.
Bethanie Wampol’s set serves all important purposes. Wampol was clever to keep the woodwork and even the paint the same in 2016 as it was in 1964. She marks the difference by using different bed clothes. The dorm in 1864 has identical beds with identical sheets, etc. By 2106, the women accent their beds as they which, Tanya’s being covered in had handsome striped-patterned silver, Julie’s with a patched quilt.
“College Colors” runs through Sunday, February 14, at the Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. Remaining show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $45 and can be obtained by calling 732-545-8100 or by visiting www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.