The Art of Undermining Your Friends

The menace in Idris Goodwin's Blackademics, a West Coast premiere by Crowded Fire Theater, begins even before the play starts. Mikiko Uesugi's set design is a slate- and medium-wood-colored box that's eerily empty but for an assortment of wooden cutting boards. They almost blend into the wall, so when you do notice them, they seem all the more sinister: They're probably not just for julienning carrots.

In this café, server Georgia (Michele Leavy) tells patron Ann (Safiya Fredericks), she aims to create “an unforgettable experience,” and not just by having no chairs, tables, or other customers. Georgia also prohibits smartphones, plucking Ann's out of her hand and reprimanding, “You need to let this experience just happen. Be here in the café. Not out there.”

Such a high concept and haughty service might not be too far out of place in the San Francisco food scene, but Ann and her friend Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) are in a small town in Illinois — and as Ann says, they're “the only two black women over 21 in a 150-mile radius of this area.” Or as Georgia, who is not black, says with unnerving grandmotherly syrupy-sweetness, “We're not the most 'diverse' community out this way.”

Ann and Rachelle are, as the play's title suggests, tokens not just in their regional population but in a savagely competitive career field, one that purports to value inclusion but often practices it only as far as it advances universities' narrow interests — and only as long as its beneficiaries make up for its perceived cost by shouldering extra work.

Under these pressures, Ann and Rachelle are worse than frenemies; they relish second-guessing one another, bursting bubbles, gloating. When Ann announces she just got tenure, the celebratory motivation for their dinner date, it's not a shared triumph; it means that Rachelle has lost, even though she teaches at a different school.

Soon, the pair are all-out sparring, just not physically. Georgia sets up the competition, the malevolent gimmick of her exclusive eatery being that the service isn't merely bad, it's out to get you. And neither professor, sharpened for battle by a lifetime of extra obstacles, can resist the bait: “The Chef thought that you may have some thoughts on Kareem Peters's last exhibit.”

They do.

Ann and Rachelle duke it out first using academic jargon, where “post-black America” trumps “third consciousness.” Then they circle each other and, as the stage directions say, “go gangsta,” or at least as “gangsta” as you can be in an avant-garde café: “Break yo self, lobby!”

But Goodwin doesn't inexorably pile on the exaggerations, as might another comic playwright like Yasmina Reza. He intersperses funny extremes with quieter, contemplative moments in which Ann and Rachelle connect as friends, pondering whether they'd make good mothers, and even intimates, conversing in fragmentary, monosyllabic questions and answers that bespeak shared lifetimes.

These bold writing choices suggest lofty ambitions, but the play can't truly chart new artistic ground if it does no more than assert that the ideology of white America (a term the play properly problematizes, don't worry) and the forces of tokenism hurt black thinkers. Worse, Goodwin's sudden shifts in tone impede any definition of the characters' relationship and their world, and Mina Morita, who's here directing her first show with Crowded Fire, doesn't clarify much. The story feels like an arbitrary series of moments rather than a developing plot; Ann and Rachelle, as likely to be confidantes as combatants from one moment to the next, can't sustain dramatic tension. Ordinarily artists of great vitality and depth, Fredericks and Spencer each keep one foot in the real world and another in various heightened realities (one rendered especially vividly by Hannah Birch Carl's sound design, which stretches smooth jazz into a synthesizer dreamscape), making their every move seem tentative, tepid.

Morita just joined Crowded Fire as its new artistic director, having served most recently as artistic associate at Berkeley Rep, specifically in its Ground Floor program, which is devoted to the incubation of cutting-edge artists from across the country. If her debut in her new home is lackluster, Morita's track record at Berkeley Rep and at many theaters across the Bay Area nonetheless heralds much to be excited about in the scrappy, daring company's future. Indeed, if the risk of Blackademics, uneven but provocative, depicting characters not often chronicled in American theater, didn't pay off, it was still a risk worth taking.

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