I first noticed the helicopter as I was walking back from my night class. Being both new and female on campus, I wasn’t all that comfortable walking alone and the searchlight from the helicopter wasn’t exactly helping matters. I eventually made it back to my dorm, assumed there’d simply been a crime or police search, and put it out of my mind. Thirty minutes later, I opened my phone to multiple missed calls from my mother and the news that Keith Lamont Scott had been shot by police. Protesters were being confronted with tear gas. Charlotte was in chaos. That damn helicopter still hadn’t left. It circled right outside the window where my friends and I sat, stunned and attempting to follow the news. Some of us cried or locked ourselves in our rooms. Some of us attempted to carry on a conversation like nothing had happened at all.
Only four weeks into my freshman year of college, my newly formed friend group was suddenly confronted with the reality of race relations in the United States. We were forced to talk about a subject that is so uncomfortable that it tends to fall on the list of things we are consistently told never to discuss: race, politics and religion. It is in the context of this reality that UNC Charlotte’s Theater Department chose its first production of the semester, the play “Baltimore” by Kristen Greenidge. Written in 2015 as part of an initiative to encourage new work for the theater written by women, the play centers on what happens when college students are thrown into discussing and dealing with race.
In the beginning, it revolves around Shelby (Amberlin McCormick), Resident Advisor and overachiever. Her biggest concerns include writing the perfect newspaper article from her interview with the Dean (Ron McClelland) and passing her sports medicine classes. However, the play diverts sharply and quickly into a chaotic scene, as a racist caricature is drawn on the door of Alyssa (Demi Ellis), a student on Shelby’s hall. The play then shifts from Shelby to a group collaboration, allowing each freshman on the hall to have a voice and the opportunity to tell their story. Through their interactions with others and individual monologues, each is given a distinct history and point of view. In similar form, the exact drawing used to torment Alyssa is revealed piece-by-piece on an electric screen throughout the show until the full disgusting picture is revealed.
Despite being short enough to run straight through with no intermission, the plot manages to cover a lot of ground. Throughout the show, the audience gets to know each student beyond the surface level. The perspectives vary widely and offer points of view just as diverse as the cast. Grace (Linda Lin) tells us about the struggles of growing up both Korean and overweight. Rachel (Ginger Duchi) recounts the story of the time a teacher tore her down for being Latino. Bryant (Kwabena Ekuban Jr.) spends his time with white people to avoid talking about race and Carson (Trevor May) has a Chinese grandmother but “doesn’t see color.” The play makes a purposeful choice to not show Alyssa until over halfway through the production. Everyone has done the talking for her, and when we finally meet her, she snaps. It’s a beautiful and heart-wrenching performance. Demi Ellis’ voice echoes through the Blackbox Theater. This isn’t the only raw outburst of emotion in the play either. Amberlin McCormick as Shelby displays an intense emotional range, from awkwardness to exhaustion to pure anger and desperation. As her character’s journey depicts her slow unraveling, it is a joy to see an actress so talented in the face of such intense subject matter.
In fact, the entire cast is so exceptionally talented that I have yet to see such a well-rounded group of performers at UNC Charlotte. It’s hard for me to even single out a standout performance. However, if I had to choose, Linda Lin’s Grace is an absolute pleasure. Her character, though played as generally pretty quiet and soft-spoken, has some of the more important lines of the whole show. Lin allows her to be funny, serious and vulnerable, all at the same time and it’s a performance that is fundamentally believable. Beyond a single actor, there is also a specific encounter in the show that continues to stand apart from the rest. When Fiona (Arden Boyle), the student behind the racist drawing, is confronted by fellow dorm mate Carson, the entire theater snaps into intensity. As the two characters navigate around each other and begin to shift to yelling, the entire audience is drawn in. It’s painful and uncomfortable to watch. Each actor manages to sell the conversation so convincingly it breaks the boundary between watching a show and reality.
However, in all honesty, this show is not without its problems. There were a couple of instances in which I felt the script lagged or that the dialogue covered ground that had already been tread. At a point in the beginning, the show makes a statement about the use of cell phones and technology. This point not only felt unnecessary, it was completely dropped and forgotten about by the end of the play. On top of this, directly after watching the production, I had a number of mixed feelings about the characters. I appreciated the wide range of points of view offered, but felt that some of the dialogue and characterizations played into stereotypes.
As the play came to a close, I also began to worry about something else. The production offered a fairly full explanation of the issues and multiple points of view surrounding race. However, it seemed to be wrapping up without offering any solutions. Granted, who has a solution to stereotypes and race relations in America? I was worried too soon, for Greenidge attempts to offer up one. At the end of the show, the Dean encourages RA Shelby to face her fears. She has run away from the very students she was supposed to be caring for and finally decides to return and attempt to have a conversation with them about what happened. She’s unsure, scared and uncomfortable. So are her students. They form a circle and as the students start to talk, the theater began to play music. The actors mouthed the conversation and the stage faded to black. This simple act, a conversation, is Greenidge’s offering. None of us know exactly how (or even if it’s possible) to fix race relations in America. However, Greenidge tells us that talking and listening to one another might be a good place to start.
In an attempt to continue this message, the Department of Theater hosted optional talkbacks with audience members to discuss the issues brought up by the play. It was this opportunity that I sincerely appreciated. The talkback was attended by about 15-20 people from all walks of life. We were also joined by members of the cast. As audience members spoke about how they related to a number of characters, I began to rethink my original position. If this many people felt the portrayal of their point of view/race/gender was accurate, then maybe these characters weren’t as stereotypical as I thought. Who am I to criticize portrayals of diverse people of color and their viewpoints as inaccurate, when I am not the one being represented in the first place? If people who have actually been through experiences like the ones the characters go through tell me the portrayal is accurate, I trust them more than my own inherently biased perceptions.
The University put out a statement less than 24 hours after I saw this show. Someone had put up a “colored” sign at a water fountain in Holshouser Hall. Likely an odd coincidence, it still felt extremely relevant and, if possible, more awful in the context of this show. I can’t help but wonder how the freshman in that hall are reacting. Are they going through the same struggles as those characters in “Baltimore”? Do they know who did it? This isn’t the first time something like this has happened on campus either. Last spring, a racist sign was found in a dorm. In October of 2016, a Nazi flag was spotted in a dorm room. Clearly, UNC Charlotte has some work to do. I don’t pretend to know how to fix this issue or heal the hurt that has been caused. But maybe we can begin by following Greenidge’s directive: by having a conversation.