Did you know that Ron Paul went to Colgate University this week and admitted to an Eritrean student that he was racist? That was one of the many things that crossed my mind when I watched director Kesewaa Boateng’s ’15 interpretation of Rebecca Gilman’s 1999 “Spinning Into Butter.” The performance is effectively thought-provoking as it is meant to be, proof being the several relevant issues that crossed my mind as I watched the play: the egregious (from my perspective) column in the News last year calling into question the ER&M major, the millions of Tumblrs screaming “check your privilege” into the abyss of the internet, the Boston bombings and the reaction to the bombings.
But “Spinning Into Butter” revolves around a specific racial issue tackled by the Dean of Student Affairs, Sarah Daniels, portrayed by Mitra Yazdi ’15, at a small predominantly white liberal arts college called Belmont College — think a less diverse Dartmouth, but in Vermont. It follows her dealing with the fallout from a hate crime committed against an African-American student on campus, as well as her fellow administrators and teachers, all of whom range from woefully ignorant to unbearably pretentious. There’s race, there’s angst, there’s ignorance — by nature of the play, it’s a very juicy plot.
Despite the room the script gives the actors to bring these critical issues to life, the performance itself is a little stiff. Yale plays are often criticized for their over-theatricality, but “Spinning into Butter” was nonetheless overacted for my taste. The movements seemed almost too calculated, particularly in the second act, and the lighting was so dramatic to the point where it almost felt like they were shoving the symbolism and weight of the topic down your throat — a militant, less effective approach than a delicate touch for a sensitive topic. Although warranted, every line was screamed for the latter part of the second act, but I felt like they were screaming at me — and not each other.
These minor issues, however, were but few pitfalls in what is an incredibly strong story about a topic Yale needs to start an honest and open dialogue on. This story was, ultimately, aided by strong performances from two particular actors. Yazdi gave a notable performance, especially because she’s tasked with carrying virtually the entire play on her back. She delivered her lines with a reasoned tone that sounded less and less like she was reading a script (admittedly, it took her a while to settle into that rhythm). Her makeup and costuming added to the new wave “colorblindness” that her character embodies. I was particularly impressed with Yazdi’s delivery of the racist monologue which reveals all her character’s intentions (I won’t ruin it for you). She delivered it with just the right amount of poignancy and pain that I was waiting for someone, somewhere — maybe even me — to shout out “first world problems!” In fact, her performance was second only to the hilarious Leyla Levi ’16 who portrayed administrator Dean Catherine Kenney. With Levi, everything was perfectly timed, delivered with the right amount of socially awkward, self-centered frustration that we so associate with caricatures of administrators — I cannot praise her enough.
With regard to other actors’ performances, I followed a strange train of feelings — annoyed, confused, impressed, then confused — about Alex Saeedy’s ’15 portrayal of Ross Collins, the pretentious professor who sort-of-dated Yazdi’s character, then broke up with her, then remained friends with her (and maybe kind of dated her again?). At first, his speech patterns seemed unnatural and were off-putting, but later I realized that it was possibly to make his character more even more pompous. When his character seemed to come through in the clutch on behalf of human decency, I was impressed with his delivery of the lines and the genuine chemistry he displayed with Yazdi’s character in the second act; the line between romantic chemistry or just gay-best-friend chemistry is also playfully blurry. Unfortunately, this version of Ross Collins was completely inconsistent with the portrayal of him in the first act, which left me confused again, wondering if maybe the depth of Collins’ mysterious character had yet to be fleshed out.
Despite minor bumps in the acting, “Spinning into Butter” was incredibly thought provoking. This play is dramatic and intense — a combination sure to get students into discussion. Yale’s campus needs a change to the way we talk about race and relate to one another, and this show is definitely a way to get it started — it comes highly recommended from this reviewer.
“Spinning Into Butter” is showing in JE Theater from April 26 – 27.