Two things we're always taught to not talk about at the dinner table are politics and religion. You could add race to that list as well, but playwright Tracey Scott Wilson would love to crash that assumption. Her new work, Buzzer, takes on issues of race, stereotypes, and gentrification head on.
"I don't want to shout at people," Wilson says. "A lot of times, people want it to be didactic or simple, or they stay away when they hear the word race, but I think people are dying to talk about it."
The Pillsbury-House-Theatre production centers on three people, a black man returning to his old neighborhood, his white girlfriend, and a white friend with a shaky past and present.
The full-length piece draws its title from a short play that Wilson wrote that examined some of the same issues as her new work. "It was about two girls who were living in a bad part of town, and they didn't know how to navigate race in that environment," she says.
Image by Travis Anderson
The play also explores issues of gentrification, another thorny and complex issue that Wilson is thrilled to uncover.
"I grew up in Newark, and where I was there was never any white people ever. The first time I saw a white person in person was at grammar school. It was unheard of when I was growing up," she says.
That has changed in recent years. "I'm happy for my mom that her neighborhood is getting better. On the other hand, she is lucky she owns her house," Wilson says, noting how improvements in the neighborhood have also increased the cost of living there.
These two issues get to the real heart of the matter for Wilson. "The biggest fear these groups have is that we would forget about race and talk about class," she says.
"The reason the country is so obsessed with race is the same reason it is obsessed with sex. There is a lack of honest discussion," Wilson says. "We never talk about slavery and how it meant 400 years of free labor. There was the Civil War and Martin Luther King Jr. and now everything is okay. The more complex stuff is not dealt with on both sides," Wilson says.
The play, a co-commission between Pillsbury House and the Guthrie Theater, is nearly ready for the public. Getting to the rehearsal stage was vital in order for the play to take the next step. "For almost two years, I wrote this with no one saying the words. [With the actors] you can hear the rhythm of the way they talk. Good actors can cover up bad writing, but a good director won't let them do that, so you can hear how it really sounds."
In this case, that director was Marion McClinton, the Tony-nominated creator who has been in charge of numerous high-quality productions in the Twin Cities. "He's been through a lot in theater and in life. He just has this zen-like quality. He's very calm and really has an insight that's not based on ego or arrogance. He has nothing left to prove, so it all about the play," Wilson says.
At the end of the day, Wilson hopes that people will have an honest discussion about these issues, unlike the coded messages used by politicians trying to score wedge-points with their target audience. "People all know what it really means. I just hate that they get away with it. Let's just talk about it," she says.
IF YOU GO
Pillsbury House Theatre 3501 Chicago Ave. S., Minneapolis
Friday through March 18
$25 (all seats pay-what-you-can)
For information, call 612.825.0459 or visit online.