The mention of American race relations may inspire a vision of a spontaneous rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” — at least for some of us. The idea that race spans beyond the pop star’s binary can be quite the cerebral stretch, as typical notions tend to gravitate toward extremes offered up by Crayola.
Probing race and identity in a comical but candid commentary on these notions, aptly titled “The Boiling Pot,” two senior Yalies have attempted a slightly deeper exploration. The title’s rhetorical engineering forces a critical consideration of the traditional and patriotic image of the cohesive American melting pot.
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Written and performed by Evan Joiner ’07 and Kobi Libii ’07 for their senior project, “Boiling Pot” premieres this weekend at the Whitney Humanities Center Theater. In a bold and refreshing medium, the piece stages the reflections of people from various walks of life whose sole commonality is their citizenship. With a running time of just 90 minutes, “Boiling Pot” is a pithy portrayal of the powerful perceptions average Americans have concerning the question of race.
Joiner and Libii spent two months of their summer interviewing 126 people in the Midwest about on race and identity in America. Most of their interviewees were randomly selected on the streets. After eight months of writing, honing and analysis, they produced a dramatic series of monologues detailing their more compelling findings.
Straying from the typical binary conception of race, this performance explores race as it pertains to identity and relates these issues to ones of religion, class, opportunity, nationalism and citizenship. The production quickly challenges the notion of the five races — white, black, red, yellow and brown — as related by the opening character, subsequently expanding the understanding of race to merely a category of identification. Instead of harping on the oft-cited tension between white and black, the play delves into issues of immigration and ethnic and religious tensions reflected in both inter- and intra-minority relations.
Comical and disturbing anecdotes, coupled with hindsight commentary, highlight the convoluted emotional and psychological effects of race on the characters’ lives. Both contemporary and historical society inform the modes of identification as Arabic, Iraqi, Iranian, Persian, Middle Eastern, Jewish, black, white and Communist surface as sources of identity confusion. Amid all this chaos, some characters face constant questions, and one eventually turns toward violence, revealing the slippery slope from frustration to fury.
The production’s structure promotes strict and singular attention to the character alone in the spotlight. A theme of intimacy and honesty is made clear as the audience spends a few minutes alone with each character, attempting to gauge the emotional and psychological impact of race on the individual.
Props and lighting are minimal, while outside noise interjects in the form of real interview tapes that mark the transfer between representations. Otherwise, the only sound is the character’s voice relating his personal struggles with identity construction. This aspect, in addition to the interview tapes, underscores the authenticity of the onstage portrayals.
The characters are compelling because they have lived through the issues of how race results in the unequal application of the law, police harassment, blocked opportunity, lowered self-confidence and discouragement, in addition to its potential for social confinement. They challenge the issue of apathy among those who consider themselves removed from the sticky issues.
But the goal of the production is to address the difficulty inherent in answering the question of how race has affected your life. Race, through its ties to identity and its simultaneous characteristics of permanence and fluidity, affects the lives of those interviewed in ways even they fail to recognize. They conclude that, after consideration, even they lack a satisfactory answer for their own.
The production concludes with the final installment of the dramatic framing device, revisiting the same comically ignorant character who believes in only five races. He finishes with a powerful, if inadvertent, instance of social commentary — referring to America as the “boiling pot.”