Blind Date

Two singles stroll through the fog of prejudice at Penumbra

The list of wrongs that human beings have managed to inflict on each other over the course of history is lengthy, withering, and almost too much to face in its totality. No easier to cope with are the injustices and cruelties suffered on the basis of race and ethnicity, but if we're to undertake this necessary reckoning, art is a sensible place to start.

It's into this realm that Slippery When Wet treads. S.H. Murakoshi's play about a nascent romance between an African American man and an Asian American woman manages, in the course of about 75 minutes, to dredge up and explode just about every preconception, prejudice, and idealization possible within this dramatic scenario. By its end the play has torn off every metaphorical scab that might have begun to grow over wounds suffered from the Middle Passage to Hiroshima, and made a decent argument that the time has not yet come for those wounds to entirely heal.

Which is not to suggest that we're dealing with a stone-faced exposition on everything that's ever gone wrong. Quite the contrary: While the play relentlessly dissects the stereotypes that play beneath the surface of Helen and Rakim's attraction for each other--tossing out the stereotypes of the Asian woman as a sensual, subservient geisha and the black man as "a panther, a sexual machine"--it often does so with a great deal of humor. Katrina Toshiko and Desean Terry, as the young couple, bring a lot of loose energy to their roles. Much of the racial subtext is expressed through asides to the audience, and their light touch charges many of these moments with a kind of tense and uncomfortable hilarity.

Another balm arrives in the form of an attractive set, anchored by a tilted mirror at the back of the stage. The design, by Ching Valdes-Aran (who also directs and choreographs) and Jason Allyn-Schwerin, is nicely abetted by Mark Dougherty's lighting, which is lush and colorful. It was a wise choice to go with such visual richness in a show that becomes increasingly intense as the possible lovers begin to tear away at one another under the weight of historical baggage.

By this point, a reasonable reader might be asking: Fine, but what's the story about? And here's the snag. Briefly, it's about a first date between two people who don't know each other. This show falls short, however, of distinguishing itself as a drama. It's wordy as hell, exploding little psychic grenades left and right, with sharp laugh lines and eyebrow-raisers to spare. But it's difficult to fully buy into Helen and Rakim, despite Toshiko and Terry's best efforts, because the characters and their situations feel sketchy.

Rakim is a filmmaker, and apparently reasonably famous, while Helen in a struggling actress-dancer, but these basic facts are established in an offhand manner at various points too late into the production. I suspect that the intention was for the audience to figure out the power/status dynamic between the characters gradually in order to deepen their depiction, in which case the fault for failing to locate this fine and subtle line is shared by the cast as well as the playwright.

Credit is due this two-person cast, however, in the realm of sheer guts. Toshiko and Terry are called upon to dance, rap, and depict the awkward interplay of attraction between two quite damaged people. Oh, and they also eventually call each other every nasty name in the book as their characters vent the ugly underside of their attraction and the way they perceive one another. Murakoshi's script is at times absolutely punishing, in the best sense possible. If liberation can be found through airing every ugly--and, conversely, unreasonably idealized--thought that two humans harbor toward each other, and by doing so artfully, then a sort of hard-won freedom is generated within this show. It's also to its credit that it doesn't sentimentalize or simplify what comes next.

 
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