Probing racial profiling
A young man from the Middle East, who speaks English with a thick accent, enrolls in a quiet, Midwestern liberal-arts college. He becomes a phenomenal chemistry student, so good it’s almost scary. Why is Ahmad so interested in this subject? The professor, a former military man, becomes a tad suspicious, especially when a piece of lab equipment seems to be missing.
Racial profiling is nothing new. Thousands of Japanese-Americans were hauled off (from Sacramento and elsewhere) to internment camps during World War II because their presence in ordinary West Coast communities was felt to be a risk. Two Middle Eastern men are dealing with charges in Lodi right now, in a case critics say reeks of racial profiling.
We currently live in a climate of suspicion and underlying fear. (After all, those airplanes crashing into New York skyscrapers and those bombs on London subways were real and were the work of young men of Middle Eastern backgrounds.) That fear, tangled up in uncertainty and ambiguity, is the main issue explored in Clouds Hill.
It happens in the context of an academic setting, that semi-detached realm where people routinely talk about “big ideas” over coffee—and live with department politics and other power games. This provides the play with some deliciously dark comedy, especially for someone affiliated with UC Davis or California State University, Sacramento.
Ahmad (played with an appealing weighty gaze by Christopher Yoosefi) mixes after hours with his chemistry professor, Michael (steely Sean Morneau), and political-science professor, Jane (Mary Beth Barber, who handles the character with a mix of girlish sex appeal and grown-up single smarts). Michael and Jane are polar opposites who are almost attracted to each other, a conscious move by the playwright. He’s a neocon and a tad macho. She’s more of a liberal feminist and runs around in shorts with a soccer ball.
It’s a topical, talky play, posing questions intended to make you squirm a bit: “Are American men getting soft?” “Do American college women behave like whores?” “Do Muslims get a ‘pass’ from liberals, compared with other groups?” Director Penny Meagher sustains a useful element of doubt about what’s going on at the bottom line. There are several deceptions, and sexual propositions, involved. Nobody comes out unscathed.
Lastly, it’s great to see Barber on the boards. She was in the first River Stage production a decade ago and then went to New York, and now she works in Sacramento in an off-stage capacity. Let’s hope she enjoys her return to acting and takes other roles in the future.