Review: West coast premiere of ‘Blackademics’ by Idris Goodwin presented by Crowded Fire Theater (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premire of "Blackademics" at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.
Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premiere of “Blackademics” at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Striving Scholars Seek Middle Class Cuisine

In “Blackademics,” Idris Goodwin offers up both more and less than what’s on the menu for dinner. The award-winning playwright serves up a meal that makes us feel what it is like to be a black woman college professor in contemporary America, using one woman’s celebration of her tenure at an exclusive restaurant. Goodwin also shows us what it feels like to be an exploited worker and teacher, even at the college level. As a new UC Berkeley study shows, up to 25% of adjunct college professors may be forced to rely on federal welfare programs for their basic needs. They are paid that meagerly. Enter Ann and Rachelle.

Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and her girlfriend Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) show us what it’s like to compete with each other for jobs, accolades, wit, smarts, and even degrees of blackness. The play is forcefully and musically acted; it is well-staged and directed by Mina Morita, the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater; and it bubbles over with fun and fire with lots of laughter at the ridiculous and real situation, and at ourselves. The two brilliant black academics rant and roll with self-conscious and self-promoting hip-hop lists of popular culture icons and elegant literary references, from Marvin Gaye to Toni Morrison. At some point, the play gets a bit bogged down by its own learning and the insistent food metaphor, but shocking and bizarre plot turns redeem “Blackademics” for an audience eager to understand white America’s hunger to consume blackness.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 3.49.40 PMWhile the two old friends, Ann and Rachelle, do love each other, in fact they parry and thrust, probing each other’s weaknesses. Separated and alienated, they have promised to get together for years and now here they are at a special occasion celebration in a café at the edge of town. They don’t yet know why.

Dressed according to their roles in life, Ann in up to date, wildly colorful gear and Rachelle in no-nonsense denim and vest, the two women eagerly enter into the metaphor of food as reward for a job well done. They both teach black culture and modern aesthetics but at two different kinds of schools. Ann teaches at a small private liberal arts college and she has just received tenure. Rachelle teaches at the local state university and she is beleaguered by demands to teach everything under the sun. Under the watchful eye of Georgia (Michele Aprina Leavy), the older white waitress who comes and goes like an attentive overseer, the two young black teachers play the old academic game of pseudo-polite and pretentious ‘gotcha.” They draw the funniest and wittiest attacks out of each other, while waiting for their sustenance.

Fredericks tears up the stage, brilliantly, giving us a full dose of a sardonic, sly, and successful African-American scholar who can play the tenure game superbly. This gal knows her stuff, she’s got the juice, and she manages to really show off the goods from the high-minded to the down and dirty.

Rachelle lives a more modest and subdued life: she writes poetry, which she recites for black students in elementary classrooms. She has her street cred, her hip-hop, and her Zora Neale Hurston well in hand — she is the more thoughtful worker. She has stayed close to her base community, reciting her simple but elegant poem about Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, for the kids.

In a surprising and absurdist plot twist, their fate could lie in the symbolic meal they are being served by the zealous Georgia who comes and goes with cold, middle class authority. Georgia seems to be consuming their blackness, as we are doing in the audience. She won’t even give them a table, chair, or fork without a struggle, mimicking the withholding behavior of the white ruling class. The celebratory dinner turns into a battle royale. The two blackademics slowly figure out that they have been pitted one against the other. What is really on the menu at this out of the way elite café which seems to have no exit?

You would be well advised to be a fly on the wall of this Café Select, and smell the whiff of blood.

“Blackademics” plays at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco, through May 2, 2015.

For further information, click here.

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“Blackacademics” by Idris Goodwin, west coast premiere presented by Crowded Fire Theater. Director: Mina Morita. Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Lisa Marie Rollins. Scenic Design: Mikiko Uesugi. Lighting Design: Stephanie Buchner. Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl. Costume Design: Maggie Yule.

Ann: Safiya Fredericks. Georgia: Michele Aprina Leavy. Rachelle: Lauren Spencer.

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