‘Boiling’ the American ‘Pot’

Rather than perform a classic play and write an essay like most graduating thespians, Theater Studies majors Evan Joiner ’07 and Kobi Libii ’07 wanted to create an original show for their senior project. Their innovation paid off.

Last spring, while still working on a script for “Boiling Pot” — a 90-minute piece of documentary theater about race and identity in America — Joiner and Libii submitted their unfinished project for inclusion in New York City’s celebrated International Fringe Festival. By the time the show had premiered at the Whitney Humanities Center in April, “Boiling Pot” was headed for Fringe.

Joiner and Libii both said they were curious to see how a New York City audience would respond to “Boiling Pot,” which reportedly sold out at every performance.

“We were interested in how it would play in a hyper-cosmopolitan, very multicultural city [like New York],” Joiner commented. “I think [the New York audience] was more willing to be a little less PC and laugh … People found things funny that we didn’t expect them to.”

Joiner and Libii, who collaborated on researching, writing and performing “Boiling Pot,” said their show was generally well-received. While Joiner concluded that the audience’s consistent laughter reflected their emotional investment in the show, he was careful to point out that “Boiling Pot” is not a mere comedy. Composed of interwoven monologues taken verbatim from the mouths of nine Midwestern men, whom Joiner and Libii interviewed the summer after their junior year, “Boiling Pot” deftly and daringly exposes the absurdity with which many Americans approach the sensitive subject of race.

“It’s funny, but it gets right to the heart of the pain,” Libii said.

Joiner said the men they interviewed, some of whom they had known previously, others they approached on the street, were eager to voice their opinions. “We would start by asking what race they identified with and what it meant to them,” Joiner recounted. “Then we would ask what it meant to be another race … We found that people were itching to talk — to think critically about their identity and their lives.”

After logging over 75 hours of interview footage, Joiner and Libii set out to accomplish the Herculean task of chopping the content down to a 90-minute show.

“We were looking for people who in the course of their interview changed in some way,” Libii explained. “There’s one character in the show who starts out by saying that race hasn’t had much of an effect on his life, but by the end, he discovers that [it has]. There’s a dramatic arc to his interview.”

According to Joiner and Libii, the title of “Boiling Pot,” taken from one interviewee’s malapropism — he meant to say “melting pot” — is fitting because it ironically demonstrates how Americans’ vague understanding of race is hindered by the language they use when trying to explain it. The characters in the show seamlessly weave threads of biological, sociological and historical discourse throughout their responses to the question, “What is race?” — but with every word, a clear answer appears to be less and less attainable.

When it comes to the show’s sometimes offensive content, Libii admits that sitting through it is not always a walk in the park, but he hopes people are able to appreciate each character’s individual humanity.

“It’s difficult to listen to someone saying absurd, racist things and still respect them,” Libii said, “But that’s what we tried to do and, ultimately, that’s what we ask the audience to do as well. By the end of the show, hopefully, there have been too many contradictory voices for anyone to walk away [without something to relate to].”

And if all goes well, the nuanced voices of “Boiling Pot” will be heard around the country. Both Joiner and Libii expressed desire to continue working on the project — perhaps even taking the show on a high-school or college tour in the near future.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Joiner said. “It’s still growing. ‘Boiling Pot’ is very much a live thing.”

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