The past is painfully present in Tracey Scott Wilson‘s evocative (and challenging) Buzzer (Pillsbury House Theatre, through March 18). Jackson is the very model of a successful three piece suited attorney: perfect pedigree (Exeter/Harvard University/Harvard Law School), salary augmented by fat bonuses, the constantly buzzing cell phone (the past again). Jackson has “made it” and to celebrate he purchases the co-opted apartment in which he grew up. He invites his girlfriend, Suzy, and his old friend Don, recently released from a stay in rehab (his seventh) to share the large flat. Ghosts? No problem. As Jackson smarmily asserts, “We’re gentrifiers.”
If only it were that simple. Jackson’s deceased mother inhabits the apartment along with Don’s wealthy father – absent but never far away. The memory of a sexual incident between Suzy and Don remains strong. Don’s two summers with Jackson, Jackson’s history as the neighborhood wimp, all still very vivid.
But the nastiest ghosts in Buzzer are racial. Jackson is African-American and his flatmates, Suzy and Don, are white. They live, or so they initially believe, in a “post-racial,” Obama-esque world. But the neighborhood, while much improved, still has black hoodlums on the corner. They still harass Suzy as she makes her way down the street. Two blocks away a dancer is brutally raped and murdered and the perpetrator (one assumes) is African-American.
Jackson, although he wields significant financial power over Don and Suzy, retreats into ethnic defensiveness: “You’re like a nigger whisperer,” he snarls at Don. Or, “I wish he wouldn’t wave his [white] privilege in my face.” (Apologies to Ms. Wilson for the paraphrases; these are important moments and I hope I’m doing them justice). The interaction of these characters becomes a dance of bitter recrimination. Because they are so compelling, their nastiness frightens and repels.
Buzzer unfolds with a fast-moving, jagged, confrontational structure which builds to a suspenseful calling of the question: can the truth exorcize these ghosts? I won’t reveal how Wilson poses the question, nor can I reveal her answer. But I will say that the moment both disturbs and fascinates.
This is not an “actor-proof” play; simplistic performances would make it shrill and hopelessly off-putting. Luckily, this cast, under the calm and knowing direction of Marion McClinton, acquits itself perfectly. As Jackson, Namir Smallwood, excels. Thin, sly, self-deprecating, Smallwood deftly underplays Jackson and seamlessly assembles a rich and spellbinding character. He anchors the play. Sara Richardson plays Suzy with angular and angry energy – and with a solid erotic presence that provides us with an understanding of Jackson and Don’s reckless fumbling. As Don, Hugh Kennedy bestrides the stage, charming, energizing very scene. Nice turns are also provided by Antonio Duke and Brent Teclaw in tiny but hugely significant roles.
If you’re looking for straight-forward entertainment, you may wish to give this one a pass. But if you want something maddening and compelling, absorbing and enraging, something that will exhilarate you while it makes you queasy, well, Buzzer runs through March 18. Kudos to the producers at Pillsbury House for taking on this play.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.