Believe it or not, my mind drifts away from the setting in the first minute. But in no way because the play bores me.
A groups of old college friends get together at a country cabin. The dinner has apparently loosened some lips. The feisty Stuart, played by Logan Rivers ’21, tries strenuously to make his point that maybe abortion could — should scientists one day find fetuses are full human beings and capable of feeling pain — be likened to slavery, and we may be no different from those who fought on the other side of the Civil War believing the “peculiar institution” as a positive good.
He is forced, unsurprisingly, onto the defense by a barrage of skepticism. This episode is intended only as a lead-in, but I am already struck by the point he has made. I have grappled with this thought in my mind a hundred times, using the same analogy, fearful and uncertain about the righteousness of my own beliefs.
“At the Table,” created by playwright Michael Perlman, offers more provocative fodder than anyone will find comfortable. You have just started wrestling with one thought when another strikes: politics, race, gender, sexual orientation, stereotyping and — most importantly — who has what place in a given conversation.
Just after Stuart finishes his frowned-upon spiel, the guest to the table of college friends, Chris, played by Payson Whitwell ’20, claims to have seen through it. Stuart’s provocative argument, she opines, is just a bait to get her — a women’s rights advocate — into a debate about abortion rights.
She pushed further: “The terms of a conversation are controlled by who is invited to the table. And you are not invited to that particular table.” Stuart is a man, and apparently, abortion is a women’s issue.
Even as someone who perennially bridles at Republican abortion proposals, I nevertheless tilt my sitting position to register my disapproval with her adjudication. In the hours to come, I do that — along with leaning forward to signal agreement — many more times. But though we may initially react with our gut, the words every character utters encourage us to think more deeply about complicated and nagging questions on the meaning of our own identity.
These questions are not easy for the characters either. The cast is indeed a diverse mix: male, female, gay, straight, white, black, Asian, Jewish, mixed-race — and it is from this very diversity that difficulty arises.
Chris’ declaration seems to draw commensurate skepticism from the table. Elliott, played by Gilberto Saenz ’19, a gay white male, questions whether the decision surrounding same-sex marriage should be made only by the gay and lesbian community.
The play thus enters its full swing. A myriad of other wrangling questions and soul-searching moments follow. Questions emerge about the stereotyping of assertive women as sexually unappealing, of black women as housekeepers, of Asians as adopted children. Sometimes the tone turns bitter, such as when Nicholas — played by Jordan Harris ’20, a black male — accuses Lauren — played by Vanessa Copeland ’21, a black female — of not firmly embracing her own identity.
The performers do an incredible job of fitting into their characters’ different personalities and frustrations in a fraught conversation. Toward the end, Laurence turns out to be much more important than she initially appears, and Copeland accomplishes this transition with a wrenching, poignant monologue.
When everyone seems to have fallen back to the trite, happy ending of celebrating diversity, Laurence abruptly begins to relate at length how difficult it has been for her to live as a black woman and how many slights and indignities she has endured. Nate, played by Carlos Guanche ’20, tries to comfort her, saying they are just trying to “bring her in” the friend circle, a phrase which Lauren immediately takes as highly condescending. “I am hurting,” she repeats again and again.
And soon, the breaking points also come for the two straight white males. “No matter what I say, it’s the wrong thing [because I’m a straight white male], right?” Nate says.
In that charged moment, rendered with unmistakable authenticity by the faces, gestures and halting words of each character, the play reaches its unsettling climax, revealing the central challenges diversity can bring to empathetic communication.
There is no happy ending. Everyone leaves in dissension and disarray, feeling too awkward to even sit together in the same car.
This is the fourth incarnation of the play, which has been updated to match the current political environment. Previously, the play ended with the topic of school bullying. The update is seamless, producing a play that thoughtfully comments on the most contentious issues of the day.
But for all the great work by the cast, the nature of the scene may limit the audience’s experience. The table fills only a tiny portion of the stage, and audience members are sitting at an angle and may not see the faces of up to half of the characters. However, this is only a minor quibble.
A provocative reflection on the frustrating nature of the ongoing “conversation” on identity, which is probably nowhere more common than on college campuses, the play nevertheless leaves opens its interpretation to the audience. Some will come away thinking of the futility and divisiveness of identity politics and the need for a more unifying theme, while others will regard the difficulty as one of many obstacles in the long but inexorable march toward the notion of “social justice.” One thing is sure, though: Nothing will be easy.
Thus, the play tries its best to portray the reality, without fear or favor.
“At the Table” will be performed at the Crescent Theater at 8 p.m. on Friday, 2 p.m. on Saturday and 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Malcolm Tang | firstname.lastname@example.org .