Monday, September 12, 2016

Aston Rep's 'The Black Slot' Sufficiently Filled With Interesting Angles, Even If In Unexpected Directions -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Black Slot
a world premiere play by Warren Hoffman
AstonRep Theatre
at Raven Theatre Complex
Thru October 2

With considerable regard for the work of Aston Rep Theatre Co. and that of director Derek Bertelsen--both within and beyond the troupe--I was intrigued enough by the premise of The Black Slot to attend on Sunday afternoon, even if it meant missing the second half of the Bears' opener (and it turns out I didn't miss much).

Though I am a great fan of theater, I've never worked or trained in it, so the concept of a behind-the-scenes play about a Wisconsin theater company trying to set an upcoming season while hewing to having one, but just one, "black slot" sounded particularly appealing on multiple levels.

I have long noted that some highly-regarded Chicago theater companies I attend, whose audiences tend to be predominantly white--and typically rather mature--offer at least, but often at most, one play per season overtly aimed at minority audiences and/or with racially diverse themes.

While it seems gauche for anyone to openly refer to this as a "black slot" or to steadfastly limit offerings written by and/or largely featuring African-American, Latinx or Asian-American actors as though filling a quota, I believe it's important for theater companies to offer various perspectives, insights and outlooks--both to their existing audience base and ideally newly-attracted patrons--as well as to leverage the talents of writers, directors and performers of diverse backgrounds.

Yet while I felt playwright Warren Hoffman--who is Caucasian--drafted The Black Slot's Artistic Director character of Pat (played by Amy Kasper) a bit too cartoonishly in her brazen adherence to having just one representation of diversity in her fictionalized theater's subscription season, she also cited aspects that seemed worthy of legitimate consideration.

Rhetorically asking her young, idealistic dramaturg Beth (Brittany Stock), "What would our subscribers think if we did two black plays in the same season?" came across as ugly, even racist, but it's not hard to imagine her concerns about ticket sales, subscriber proclivities and the marketability of known titles/writers/actors vs. new/unfamiliar ones being regularly weighed and discussed at self-producing theaters across the country.

Not knowing much about "The Black Slot" before deciding to see it, though filled in a bit by other reviews that perhaps provided too much information--so consider this something of a SPOILER ALERT--I initially anticipated a play primarily focused around various facets of having a "black slot." Perhaps an Artistic Director arguing with a theater's Board of Directors reflecting differing viewpoints, or maybe a dilemma when (as could be the case in more rural Wisconsin) too few qualified African-Americans audition for a play featuring several characters of color.

Hoffman's narrative, however, takes a different path, and I initially found the proceedings somewhat slight, and credulity a bit stretched.

The theater company in the play already has scheduled The Piano Lesson by the late, great African-American playwright August Wilson  as part of their upcoming season.

For the one remaining slot, dramaturg Beth has read and recommended several worthy plays, most notably as The Black Slot begins, a new one by a young, never-before-produced black writer named Tim (Justin Wade Wilson, excellent for the second time in a show seen this year, following #LOVESTORIES at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre).

As audience members, we have no way of knowing how good Tim's play might be, but while we can take it on faith that Beth truly believes in it, she comes off somewhat pushy and naive, while fairly understandable objections Pat may have are undermined by a buffoonish and culturally insensitive characterization.

So rather than getting a riveting discourse and debate about black slots, what transpires involves Tim getting in touch with Beth, asking her out on a date, listening to Beth vent about Pat's unfairness in rejecting his script and Beth & Tim conspiring to purport his possession of an unproduced August Wilson play that Pat jumps at staging, with the unexpected blessing of Wilson's estate trustee (Linsey Falls).

This is essentially what I knew going in on Sunday afternoon, and I found what continued to unfold more dramatically worthwhile that I may have anticipated.

This isn't to say The Black Slot is a phenomenal play; it has a number of flaws, especially if one dissects it too closely. And though a conceit of having paper scripts "talk" to Beth throughout the play was imaginative and initially quite droll, it became a bit much and hampered the seriousness of the tone, even in what is promoted as a comedy. (I also couldn't help but be reminded of Avenue Q's bad idea bears, who would offer cheeky advice in sarcastic voices).

As I've tried to connote above, I think the basic premised could have been mined far more powerfully, even if in a more straightforward approach. (Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection covered somewhat similar ground in a way that has me recalling it quite fondly it more than a decade removed from seeing it at Northlight.)

But while The Black Slot becomes more about personal conniving, dishonesty and one's willingness to "play the game" than the multicultural conundrums inherent in planning theatrical subscription seasons, I saw value in it as a character study.

With fine pacing throughout, the two-hour two-act kept me sufficiently engaged and entertained, most acutely around the compelling dichotomy that emerges among Tim and Beth, who Wilson and Stock adroitly embody.

Afterward, I couldn't help but consider just how early Tim may have had his duplicitious but potentially career-advancing plan in mind.

Each of the play's four main characters engages in actions that are untoward or even underhanded, yet in a way that allows for considerable subjectivity in who to admire, forgive, admonish and/or deplore.

Pablo Picasso once said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth," and after viewing The Black Slot--for which Bertelsen and his crew deserve credit for deftly conjuring several settings within a small space for a conceivably modest budget--I couldn't help wonder, "What if great art is created through a lie? Or several? Is it still worth admiring, and applauding?"

So although The Black Slot doesn't really pose the dramatic questions that I might have wanted explored, I still found it worth my time on a Sunday afternoon.

If nothing else, I assume it was better than the Bears' offense.

And though it really shouldn't be anything worth noting, it was nonetheless heartening to see considerably more of a mixed race audience at an Aston Rep production (in the Raven Theatre complex on north Clark St.) than I readily recall.

Motivational purity might be imprecise, even impossible, to discern, but bringing wider audiences to the theater is only ever a good thing.

No comments: