'Buzzer' challenges the idea of 'post-racial' America

Sara A. Richardson and Namir Smallwood
Sara A. Richardson as Suzy and Namir Smallwood as Jackson in the Pillsbury House Theatre production of Buzzer.
Photo courtesy Michal Daniel

Some believe that when President Barack Obama was elected, America became a post-racial country. Others argue the very term "post racial," meaning a society where race doesn't matter, glosses over how far Americans have to go to achieve racial harmony. "Buzzer," a new play premiering at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, explores how race can even overshadow close friendships. Its creators tried to capture what a conversation on race might sound like.

On the surface, the three characters in "Buzzer" are post-racial prototypes. Jackson is a successful African-American attorney with a white girlfriend, Suzy, who's a teacher. Don, who's white as well, is Jackson's best friend. He's also a drug addict. They live together in the down-at-the-heels neighborhood where Jackson grew up and where he is now trying to help gentrify.

As the play unfolds, the atmosphere grows more and more tense and racially complicated, and that's what attracts director, and St. Paul native Marion McClinton.

"The thing that I like about this play in dealing with it is that this is an issue that is so convoluted that the very best of friends bump heads about it," he said.

New York playwright Tracey Wilson, who is African-American, wrote "Buzzer" partly to challenge the existence of a post-racial world being talked about when Obama was running for president. Wilson's reaction was to support Hillary Clinton, because she was afraid race would disappear as an issue if Obama won.

"That's what I was constantly saying, and I think that's actually true. It's going to become more coded, and he's not going to be able to, as the first black president, he's not going to be able to talk about any of this stuff," Wilson said.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Gentrification, which historically has often been intertwined with race, is a subtext that runs through the play. A friend told Wilson about an incident on a college campus which had expanded into a poor urban community. Two white female students had let a black man into a dormitory without asking for his student ID, The man later committed a crime. The women claimed they didn't check his ID because they didn't want to be called racists.

"To me it was actually a perfect example of the lack of discussion," Wilson said. "I don't even know that they talked to each other, but they just had this fear of, 'If I don't do this, what does this make me?'"

It was also a sign to Wilson of how far the nation has to go in understanding race in all its nuance and complications.

Pillsbury House Theatre production of 'Buzzer'
Namir Smallwood as Jackson and Sara A. Richardson as Suzy in the Pillsbury House Theatre production of Buzzer.
Photo courtesy Michal Daniel

"This idea of racism has sort of stopped at 1964," Wilson said. "The idea of a racist is just this southern redneck with a wife beater, as opposed to all the complexity that it has always had. So, it just becomes very simplified, so there's just no discussion about it at all."

In order for a conversation on race to take place, white people have to be involved. And many whites are reluctant to wade into the thicket of profound black anger on the issue. There has to be a starting point for the discussion, and for Wilson, it's the extent to which the country was built on the backs of slaves.

"We're the most powerful country in the world, and we're the most powerful country in the world because of 400 years of free labor," Wilson said. "This is a reality that people do not like to face. And that's actually where the discussion starts."

Many white people object to that starting point. They question why they're held responsible for sins their ancestors committed centuries ago. To which Wilson responds: "Of course. But there are repercussions. Everything has repercussions," even for the three characters in "Buzzer," who appear to have transcended racial boundaries and are enjoying the fruits of a 'post-racial' society.

In one scene, Jackson, the high powered African-American attorney, is chiding his best friend Don, the drug addict, who's white, for what Don went through as a strung-out junkie in Jackson's old neighborhood.

"We're the most powerful country in the world because of 400 years of free labor."

"If any of these corner dudes out here wrote down this stuff, all the stuff they been through, nobody would give a crap," Jackson says. "But you boy, you rich white boy -- folks would be fascinated. 'He said what? He did that? He survived life with those filthy, nasty negroes in the projects?'"

Suzy: "Damn, baby."

Jackson: "I'm just playin."

Suzy: "Not cool, Jackson."

Don: "It's not cool at all, bro."

Jackson: "I'm just playin'."

Don: "Listen man, it wasn't B.S. Okay? I wasn't being a wigger or whatever. I was just young and messed up."

Jackson: "I know, I was messed up too."

Don: "Alright, so why do you say that I..."

Jackson: "Now listen, dude...

Don: "No, no, seriously, now you listen. I know about this. I understand this, where we are, better than you even.

Jackson: "Ahhhhh..."

Don: "Cause I was out there living it, you were inside reading a book."

Jackson: "So I should have been out there getting high with you?"

Don: "No, no I'm not saying...look I'm just.....(Don grunts in frustration) I can't get my words right."

Marion McClinton
Tony-nominated director Marion McClinton.
Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

In the play, Jackson has moved back into his old neighborhood because it's starting to turn and he sees a development opportunity. The issue of gentrification may be what resonates most with McClinton, not only because he feels it goes hand in hand with race, but because of how it affected his upbringing in St. Paul.

"I'm from the Selby/Dale neighborhood in St. Paul," he said. "And you go to the corner of Selby and Dale now and it doesn't look anything like it looked back then. In fact, I am looked at as an interloper, in a place where I grew up. And that pisses me off."

McClinton rejects the notion that gentrification represents progress for a neighborhood if its former inhabitants have been forced out.

"For a neighborhood that was predominantly black growing up, we're getting pushed farther and farther and farther, he said. "We've been pushed all the way over to the east side of St. Paul, that's how far some of this pushing has gone. To be honest, we had buildings before, we had businesses before. But I-94 was tossed in there, and destroyed Rondo Avenue. So, all this stuff that's coming now isn't brand new to the neighborhood, it just used to include us. Now it doesn't."

The idea of people all across the country somehow bridging the divide and talking with each other about slavery, race, gentrification and poverty seems like a dream that will never come true. But McClinton says "Buzzer" can provide a model.

"The best way of going at it is through the intimacies that friends have, to start working on it there, working on it with your friends, being honest, being straightforward, which is hard," he said.

And since relatively few white Minnesotans even have black acquaintances, so much as close black friends, their best option might be to go see "Buzzer," and take part in a conversation on race through the friends in the play.