STAGEStheatre Brings on the 'Hate'
The time is always right, unfortunately, for a play, television show or film about hate crimes in America—this year alone, we've had more tragedies and exposition on the issue than any one person can take. It's so incredibly troubling, in fact, that trying to wrap our heads around motive often seems futile, and every answer we come up with regarding why someone kills with no provocation and only because of race, gender or sexuality is always the same: some combination of ignorance, learned behavior, poverty and mental illness.
That also means that if one chooses to tackle the subject of violent acts of hate, the information offered better be new or insightful, something that makes us look at the issue from another angle, if only a slight one, that we've not considered before. In that regard, OC Weekly critic Joel Beers' new play about hate crime, directed by Barney Evans at STAGEStheatre, doesn't deliver.
The hour-long production centers on the interrogation of two men, a malicious but intelligent, Fullerton-based, white-power leader named Carpenter (Sean Hesketh) and his thuggish, heavy metal-loving, uneducated disciple Jackson (Steven Sullivan). They're accused of bombing a local mosque, an act that inadvertently leaves a half-dozen schoolchildren burned almost to death. On the good guys' team are Detective Kerrigan (Adam Poynter) and Officer Burroughs (Aaron Campbell), led by Homeland Security investigator Rivera (Laura Harper), but the interrogation, per se, is much less about gathering evidence to pin to the racist punks than to find out why they think the way they do, turning the room into a psychotherapist's session and forcing a plotline that instantly feels false given the circumstances and surroundings.
Perhaps this mismatch fed into the directing, which often seems confused and without purpose. Several times, for example, Officer Burroughs leaves his post and exits the stage while Rivera is interrogating the suspects. It's a highly unusual action, so, we assume, he must be a secret cohort of the criminals and is setting Rivera up. If that's the case, we're never let in on the conspiracy, and his random entering and exiting ends up being a "cheat" so Rivera can, by happenstance, be attacked. Likewise, Evans moves the characters around in ways that call attention to the placement when it shouldn't—as when Rivera is ruminating on hate while staring into the two-way mirror. To us, it looks as though she's staring out a window (there is a large frame suspended in the middle of the stage, separating us from those inside the room), but for the Rivera character, her face is about 2 inches from a mirror, and she's basically looking up her own nose.
Rivera's troubles run much deeper, however. Like many female characters placed in positions of power within fiction, the Latina inspector falls victim to the limitations often shackled onto her sex. Ineffective and emotional, she is so inept in her attempts to break the racists' front that I'm surprised neither supremacist accused her of attaining her powerful position through affirmative action alone—because it's an argument they might have won. Unlike some of her well-known British female detective and government-agent peers generated from stories across the pond, this woman is not tough, intimidating or all that smart, and her gender appears to be the source of her problem. This means we're never on her side, suspecting from the get-go that she will fail to nail the dirtbags.
Hindering the story further is an abundance of overacting—posturing, slamming fists on tables in endless emphasis, and a horde of unnervingly odd facial contortions meant to convey internal emotions were sad, unnecessary distractions from dialogue that actually did have something to say. And while I'd heard all of the messages within the play before, I offer the caveat that many people have not.
For those who are blissfully unaware of their racist tendencies (calling all brown-skinned people Mexicans, for example, and not understanding why that might be insulting), or for the young person who isn't immersed in the myriad news reports on race and hate crimes, this play is just the thing to rattle them—especially if they take to heart Beers' jab that organized, underground Aryans live in Fullerton, too. For the educated audience member, however, the progressive lefties who notice every racial, gender or sexual verbal misstep, the work is unaffecting, if still legitimate.
The result is an hour of ugly—which is what Beers intended, of course—but there's little to take home if you're already keenly aware of the social malignancies that plague our nation and often ruminate on their causes, not just their effects. That entails a lot of additional thinking on remedies, and that's a subject I'd like to spend an hour seeing played out onstage.
This review appeared in print as "Don't Hate the Messenger: An hour of ugly in Hate makes for an evening of empty by the end."
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