The Box Marked "Other"

When black and white don't make gray

It used to be that when someone claimed to be blind to race, you could reasonably assume that person was concealing some stripe of deep-seated bigotry. (Steven Colbert knows this, and on his bombastic show, he announces that he's colorblind as often as he can.) Yet with interracial relationships on the rise, the country is teeming with children of two or more races. It would seem that these parents see race through a more complicated lens (if not through a blindfold). But what the other 97 percent of the population thinks is anyone's guess.

It only makes sense that a theater called Mixed Blood would want to wade into the debate, and it's done so with five different playwrights taking the lead. Messy Utopia is a series of eight light entertainments on the theme of biracial identity directed by Aditi Kapil. Given a mass of cultural baggage that can only be measured in tons, Kapil follows a sensible strategy: keep the energy high, and keep it moving.

Indeed, the show's staging reflects a very American notion of forward progress. Kate Sutton-Johnson has placed the audience at floor level in the middle of the room, seated on swiveling chairs. Above and around them, she's built the set—a diner, a car seat, etc. Traffic lights direct the audience's attention to the next tableau.

The first three plays are by Seema Sueko. Probably the strongest is the first, Conversion, in which a young mother (Stephanie Diaz) decides to convert from Islam to her husband's Catholicism; her sister Shireen (Kapil) is appalled. The third play in the trilogy is Cab, a taut monologue in which another mother (Jamila Anderson) conducts a long chat with her infant about all the people (well-meaning and otherwise) who will ask her what she "is." Intermittently, she fends off questions from a cab driver about her ethnicity.

There's a sense of having scratched the surface by this point, and the next piece, Velina Hasu Houston's Bloody Hell, is longer and more convoluted. Here, Evangelina (Diaz) and Anish (Joe Hernandez-Kolski) join up for a blind date after meeting on the internet. The piece opens nicely, with the would-be lovers not recognizing one other because neither looks like a stereotype of their ethnicity. A love story follows, which may be encouraging to Match.com users, but fails to win over the audience.

Though the scenes are short, some still manage to overstay their welcome. Janet Allard contributes a story about a female karaoke performer (George A. Keller) who keeps getting heckled because she doesn't look like the artists (Prince, Aretha) she covers. The conceit wears, despite the brevity of its snippets.

Stronger is Allard's What Are You?, in which two schoolgirls (Channing Jones and Anderson) bullshit, boast, and fudge the truth about their ethnic backgrounds until finally deciding to become chums. It's a nice condensation of how one wishes these conversations would always turn out.

Kapil's The Ballad of Accountant Joe rounds out the night with the titular Joe (Hernandez-Kolski). This man encompasses so many ethnicities that he resembles anyone and everyone and is thus indescribable. He sensibly embarks on a crime spree, only to be foiled by a hard-ass detective (Kapil again; no word on whether she also upholstered the chairs and provided valet parking). It's a fitting finale to a decent 90 minutes at the theater—an ironic American celebration not of Joe Somebody but of Joe Anybody.

 
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