Melting the tigers of wrath
Chico State production looks to inspire open dialogues on racism
In the 1921 book by Helen Bannerman entitled Little Black Sambo, Sambo has been given beautiful new garments only to have three bully tigers force him to give them each an item of clothing. Greed being the self-consuming horror that it is, the tigers soon quarrel over the clothes, eventually chasing each other around a tree faster and faster until they melt into butter. Sambo recovers his clothes and scoops up the tiger butter, utilizing the latter most effectively as griddlecake grease.
It is from here that Chico State Drama Department’s latest production gets its title. Writer Rebecca Gilman’s drama, Spinning Into Butter, deals appropriately with racism and also with how the cant of “political correctness” can sometimes unwittingly veil a source of prejudice rather than expose it to light.
Director and Chico State drama instructor Cynthia Lammel explains the basic plot of the play. It takes place at a small Vermont college that has only recently encouraged ethnically diverse students to attend.
“Racist notes have been sent to one of the African-American students on campus,” Lammel says. “The notes are never read [aloud to the audience]. Only one phrase is heard: ‘Little Black Sambo’ … which gives the play its title. But the rest [of the notes] are not read because Gilman wants us to consider ‘Do we know what’s in these notes, and if we do, what does that say about us?'”
The play follows the school’s dean of students, Sarah Daniels, as she tries to uncover the roots of not only the overt racist incidents on campus but also those prejudices within herself that prevent her from carrying on an honest conversation on the topic, one devoid of the cloak of “political correctness.” Playing Daniels is Hannah Knight.
“Hannah’s very intelligent,” Lammel says. “And for a 19-year-old woman to play someone about 32 takes a certain amount of poise. Her use of language, her ability to understand complex ideas … it’s easy to believe that she’s thinking these thoughts. Hannah has a warmth that I think this character needs, otherwise the character might seem cold. [The warmth] is just part of who Hannah is, apart from the fact that she’s just a lovely actress.”
Knight, a Chico High School graduate, has appeared most recently in Court Theater last summer and in the university’s musical production of Naughty Marietta. When asked about her character, Knight explains, “[Sarah Daniels] loves being the students’ voice in the academic world. She’s also got a lot of problems. She has an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father, and she’s had that burden to carry all of her life.”
When asked if that situation manifests itself in Sarah’s behavior, Knight says, “Yes, I think she’s very critical of herself and other people, and very cynical.”
Is she good at facing this failing?
“To a certain extent,” Knight admits, “but when it gets too close she pushes it away.”
When asked about the play’s dramatic center, Lammel says, “The dramatic question of the play is, ‘Are we capable of a dialogue [on racism]?’ And that’s explored through relationships.” Further, she says, “If you come to the play you’re going to be energized, provoked, laughing, engaging in dialogue, and leaving with hope. I think it will instigate dialogue. Gilman’s [ideas are] coming through, and not in a dry way. These [characters] are passionate, articulate people. And the actors are great.”
Spinning Into Butter plays nightly at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 9 through Saturday, April 13, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14. Advance tickets are $10 adult, $8 senior and $6 for child or student. Add $2 at the door. Chico State box office: 898-6333. For disability-related accommodations, call 898-6856.