by Grace Hatton, Reverb Editor
Before the curtain raised on the Warren Wilson Theatre Department’s production of Spinning into Butter on opening night, director and Theatre professor Candace Taylor stood before the crowd and introduced the play by saying that “we chose to do this play not because it was easy but because it was hard.”
And indeed Spinning into Butter is not a particularly easy play to digest, especially since many of the situations that occur in this play are strikingly similar to what is happening on our own campus in regards to incidents of hate. Spinning into Butter takes place at the fictional Belmont College in Vermont which happens to be a small liberal arts college with a predominantly white student body. Sound familiar? The plot of the play centers around a racial hate crime that happens on campus when an African American student, Simon Brick, receives hateful notes and eventually a rock through his window. The main character in Spinning into Butter is the college’s dean of students, Sarah Daniels, who is portrayed by sophomore Sophie Yates.
The play opens with Daniels convincing a student, Patrick Chibas, portrayed by Jess Williams, to apply for a scholarship as a Puerto Rican student even though Patrick identifies as Nuyorican. After Daniels has convinced Patrick to take the scholarship as a Hispanic student, despite his protests, the audience is introduced to the character of Professor Ross Collins portrayed by junior Lewis Pullman. Collins is the romantic interest of Daniels at the beginning of the play but as the it progresses, and after their breakup, he acts more like Daniels’s conscious. Pullman manages to easily embody the mannerisms of a cocky, slightly insulting yet equally charming older professor who enjoys the pomp of academia.
As the play continues we are introduced to Dean Catherine Kenney, who is portrayed by freshman Adrianna Daly. She does an excellent job of embodying a matter-of-fact, down to business woman who is only concerned with the image of the school. Other characters introduced include Burton Straus, played by Professor David Mycoff and Mr. Meyers, portrayed by freshman Matthew Harper. Straus is the seemingly bad guy of the play who wants to always be seen and heard without actually giving a damn about what the students want. Mr. Meyers, on the other, hand is the campus security officer who remains a steady, wise and down-to-earth force throughout the play.
Mr. Meyers is the one who notices how convoluted the administration at Belmont is saying that “people don’t recognize their assholes from a hole in the ground.” After the initial hateful note is delivered to Simon Brick everyone is quick to organize a forum to discuss racial incidents on campus.
Daniels urges the group to consider Simon and how he would feel about being discussed in front of the whole campus but the group moves on with the plan anyway. In effect they treat Simon Brick as a fact or a problem versus a person. As the racial forums continue students began to protest that the tone of these conversations seemed unauthentic. Patrick comes back to Daniels and expresses his frustration that within the forums the students of color are being talked about as though they are not there and that the white students are all being portrayed as criminals.
Another character, Grey Sullivan, portrayed by junior Marie Gouldsbury, is introduced in the middle of the play and she wants to start a students for tolerance group, although it is unclear as to whether she has invested in the group for the right reasons. Sullivan expresses a desire to go to law school and being the president of such a group would fill out her resume. Through her body language, flips of her hair and high pitched voice, Gouldsbury perfectly portrays the happy go lucky sorority girl that is all about making herself look good.
As the racial forums continue at Belmont and Simon Brick continues to receive hateful notes Patrick comes back to Daniels again. He presses Daniels about how bad the racial issues on campus are and how he lost his financial aid because of the scholarship for Hispanic students that Daniels made him apply for at the beginning of the play. Patrick tells Daniels he’s transferring and that he “doesn’t want to stand out and doesn’t want to get picked on. I just want to go!”
As the play moves past intermission Daniels as a character slowly begins to unravel as she thinks about Patrick and the pressures of her job saying “I feel like I don’t live up to the architecture.”
At the same time Dean Kenney is only person interested in the image of the college and wants this whole “mess” sorted out. Kenney’s character is one that we all secretly imagine all college administrators to be, someone who only cares about the bottom line and making the school look good on the surface no matter how bad it is beneath that flimsy illusion of an ideal community.
After it is let loose that Belmont only hired Daniels due to her previous experience at a largely African American school Kenney instructs Daniels to create a ten point bullet list to solve the racism issue on campus. As Daniels creates the list Collins comes in to check in on her and Daniels reveals that her first three items on the list are “1.Stop Being Stupid 2. Move to Vermont 3. Admit Defeat.”
Through her discussion with Collins it is slowly revealed that Daniels is harboring her own form of racism. She explains how through her education she realized “I was the one who had kept black people down.” Daniels then launches into a monologue that Yates delivers with startling perfection. Through her pitchy voice, shaky deposition and continual ringing of hands we physically see Daniels’s internal struggle with her own hate. She explains to Ross how in Chicago she had a system for picking who she would sit next to and would always chose a black man last. Ross explains that Daniels “moved to Vermont. You ran away.”
When Daniels argues that she has tried to not think badly of black people but she is sure she could never be fixed Ross fires back by saying “You’re a terrible coward. Even if you can’t find a perfect solution you should at least give it a shot.”
Thanks to the excellent performances of Yates and Pullman, after the long monologue is over the audience feels anger at the characters as well as pity for Daniels’s character. As Ross walks out of the door at the end of the scene he admits: “That thing with the train, choosing the seats, I do that too.” “Everyone does,” replies Daniels. “That doesn’t make it right,” says Ross before exiting the office.
Daniels finally makes a list of possible solutions to the race problems on campus but she also makes another list called pros and cons of living near and away from black people. Kenney takes the list and uses it against Daniels later on in the play.
After countless meetings and conversations, it is finally exposed that Simon Brick had “done it to himself.” He had written the hateful notes to himself and he had thrown the rock through his own window. An emergency meeting is called in which Kenney reveals the offensive pro/con list which Daniels developed.
Kenney and Straus deem Daniels a racist and decide to expel Simon for committing acts of hate, even though the hate was directed towards himself. Daniels decides to quit her job and goes to see Simon to tell him about the expulsion as her last official duty. After Daniels leaves it is revealed that Straus and Kenney know very little about Simon Brick, including where he’s from and have no desire to talk to his parents. The scene seems to be a critique on college administrators and how often students are just seen as a number in the production line to become graduates.
During Daniels’s final meeting with Simon she spends time asking him why he did it but he has no answers. She feels connected to Simon as he cries over the situation. Afterwards Daniels tells Ross about it, Ross is convinced she’s changed for the better and her racist thoughts are gone. However Daniels explains “There are no sudden conversions. You don’t become different overnight. All I thought was you’re black and I’m white.”
Before Daniels leaves, Grey Sullivan comes to see her and discusses how students have really begun to talk about race on campus and how difficult those conversations can be but at the same time how worthwhile they are to have. The last person to see Daniels is Mr. Meyers who expresses his regret over the way things turned out and how he wished Daniels could have been a better person. “One part of you must be lying to the other part of you,” he says. “Either you’re not as good as you think you are or you’re not as bad as you think you are.”
After Meyers’s departure, Daniels calls up Simon at home and begins to talk to him, perhaps for the first time as a human being rather than as an administrator. The lights fade with Daniels assuring Simon that everything will be okay. However, before the lights dim completely the desk light is left on and a porcelain owl that’s been sitting on the desk throughout the entire play is the main focus of attention.
All the audience can think is how the quick illumination of the owl is the director’s way of making sure we think about these issues within our own community.
Spinning into Butter is one of those plays that leaves you with more question than answers, but perhaps that’s the point because plays that leave you with questions force you to think about the content and your relation to it. What is clear though is that this play was chosen for a reason. Belmont could easily be Wilson and as the past few weeks have shown us racially charged incidents of hate do happen on this campus.
So then the question Spinning into Butter seems to ask of our community is will we make the same mistakes, we will hosts workshops and forums about the race issue without ever directly speaking to or learning from the students that racial hate crimes actually affect.
Will we strive to seek out the reasons behind such actions or will we just be concerned with the image of our school and brush things under the rug? Will we treat the victims of these incidents as just another issue or will we actually take the time to be there for them, to listen, to respond and to treat them as human beings?
I suppose only time will tell if Wilson becomes something similar to Belmont or if we can have the guts to become a better, more inclusive, loving, understanding and accepting community.