Racism is alive and well in America — anybody who denies it is probably racist themselves. But America’s racism isn’t all violence and hate speech; it is just as prevalent and harmful among pleasant American families who don’t consider themselves problematic at all. As Martin Luther King Jr. described in “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” the “white moderate” is a greater hindrance to civil rights than the radical, outspoken racist — as nobody sees these people as villainous. They are the people who don’t consider themselves racist, and yet refuse who fight against racism. This refusal made the white moderate complicit in the problem of racism in America during the civil rights movement.
Nowadays, the white moderate has been subsumed into a vast proportion of the population who seem ignorant of the yet undying racism in their country. These are people (and not only white people) who commit subtle acts of racism in their day-to-day lives without recognizing the life-altering effects that their racist thoughts, words and actions have on people of color.
Theatre Three’s Funny, You Don’t Act Like a Negro, which runs through March 15, brings today’s subtle racists to the forefront in a 90-minute play that laces its sitcom-esque story with cutting portrayals of racist actions and their consequences on our neighbors, our countrymen and, most important, our children.
The play was written by M. Denise Lee, who is primarily an actress and a singer rather than a playwright. However, this was a story that needed to be told and nobody else was telling it. Although no brilliant writer, Lee doesn’t need to be: She has crafted a play that is pertinent to our times and expresses its points with humor and, for the most part, ease. This play doesn’t seem to want to be great art; it has a message to deliver, and it does so.
Funny, You Don’t Act Like a Negro loosely follows three families in an upper-middle class Dallas neighborhood. One family is white, one is black and one is Hispanic. But each family consists of a husband, a wife and a young daughter — and each family is racist in its own way.
The mother of the white family (Jessica Turner) is perhaps the most blatantly racist character: She complains about the increasing diversity of her neighborhood, which she sees as a corruption, and refuses to show kindness to her neighbors of color. Her husband (Gregory Lush) may not make as many racist comments as she does, but nor does he confront her racism.
The father of the Hispanic family (David Lugo) is the new pastor at the neighborhood church, and the first non-white pastor to be appointed in 50-something years — and for fear of being discriminated against, he makes himself as white as possible, calling himself the Anglicized “Michael” instead of “Miguel.” This is to the chagrin of his wife (Liza Marie Gonzalez), who is proud of her heritage and wishes that her husband be as well. She is perhaps the most interesting and well-acted character in the play — although none of the characters is developed beyond what’s necessary to make points about race.
The black family is perhaps the friendliest, most functional family — which makes the struggles that they face because they are black all the more troubling. The father (Gerald Taylor II), though a perfectly ordinary family man, is often unfairly pulled over on his way to work. His wife (Jazzay Jabbar) is unwelcome in their predominantly white neighborhood and fears every day that her husband will be wrongfully abused by the systemic racism that swarms Dallas.
Uniting the three families are their children (Alexis Muturi, Summer Stern, Juliana Gamino), who see each other in the neighborhood and want to be friends, but are told to avoid each other by their parents. The children are unfortunately annoying characters — whenever they play, dance or sing, they grate on the audience. Their more poignant lines are only occasionally delivered well. Although not charming, the children are one of the most significant aspects of this play: We see that they are innocent and kind, and not racist or judgmental. However, their parents are ever making racist comments in their presence. The audience recognizes that the children will undoubtedly adopt the opinions of their environments; this is the very thing that has perpetuated racism in America for so long.
The three families take their places on the stage in comedic but pointed segments. Their storylines are punctuated by a variety of other vignettes, from sketches to a surprise game show in which the audience participates. Some of the side stories, which recycle the same actors, are boring with little payoff. Some are extremely dark and confusing, but aren’t developed enough to make sense. But some of them are excellent, such as a plot line about three women — a schoolgirl, a college student and a hardworking business woman— named Folami, a name that acts as a roadblock for them throughout their lives because of its ethnic signification. This scene also features the best acting of the play, from Muturi, Jabbar and Gonzalez.
A more saddening repeated segment features voice-overs from various Dallas personalities from all walks of life, including playwright M. Denise Williams, director Christie Vela and even former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk. They share instances of racism in their day-to-day lives. Some of the stories are funny; others are terrifying and disgusting. They are important reminders that this play is representing a very real situation, and one that needs to be regarded as such.
The reality of this situation is what makes this play and its message so necessary. By maintaining a tone of comedy throughout, this play saves itself from being preachy — but no audience member will leave the theater without realizing the prevalence of racism.