When Spinning into Butter opened in Chicago late last spring at the Goodman's Studio Theatre, it quickly became apparent to audiences that dozing was not an option and that political correctness would not be part of the proceedings. An African-American student at a small, primarily white liberal-arts college in Vermont receives an anonymous threatening note, then another, then, as a postscript, a rock through his window. Thwarted in her efforts to get the situation under control, a well-meaning and unimpeachably p.c. dean finally unravels, spewing her own bigotry in a second-act monologue that invariably left audiences in stunned silence.
"When you come face to face with a lot of just regular black people, you can't aestheticize them anymore," she says. "They're too damn scary. . . ."
It gets worse:
"It was the same thing on the train. There'd be a dozen black people sitting quietly, going about their business, but there'd be two incredibly loud, stinky, offensive black guys at one end of the car and they'd be the ones I'd notice. . . . They weren't going to graduate from college. They weren't going to do anything with their lives. Not because they couldn't, but because they didn't want to. Because they were lazy and stupid."
"Before the production opened, I was really scared," playwright Rebecca Gilman recalls. "I didn't know how people were going to react."
She wrote it after three years of living in Chicago, when she realized that the North is as segregated as the South she grew up in, even if it's not acknowledged. "It was a cumulative thing of my own progression through liberal bastions," she says of her play's gestation, "where people had really prided themselves on their tolerance in surroundings where it was never tested."
The response was remarkable. "People were pissed off," Gilman says, "but pissed off in a good way." The Chicago Tribune called Spinning Into Butter "an important play by a writer of surprising gifts, not the least of which is her ability to amuse, teach, and move her audience with the awful truth." Audiences tended to see it as a gauntlet thrown down, a challenge to talk honestly about race. They stayed around after the show for discussions, and the run was extended three times. On July 26, with some minor tinkering, the drama will open at Lincoln Center Theater's Newhouse space, in a co-production with the Lincoln Center Festival.
"I had never heard these things said on a stage before and said so honestly," says director Daniel Sullivan. "It's been the M.O. of white writers to stay away from the whole race issue. The fact that Rebecca doesn't turn away but confronts it head-on in as subjective a way as possible certainly bears listening to."
Gilman is -- quite unabashedly -- an old-school dramatist, conjuring recognizable characters and situations and telling her story in straightforward fashion. She does not think theater should be a metaphor for life or a poetic expression of life, but rather that it should be life, be the setting for work that throws social issues into high relief. "When I was in graduate school, this was not the kind of play my fellow workshop people were writing," she adds, insisting that "there is a group of people out there who just want a good story and just want to know what's being talked about onstage." It's a tack that shouldn't be mistaken for simplistic. Spinning Into Butter begins loosely but coils tighter and tighter as we're drawn in.
"I think of her work as wonderfully sly," says Sullivan. "I was attracted to a satiric voice that becomes increasingly human as the play continues. She constantly upends your expectations." Gilman, who's based in Chicago, certainly upends the expectation one has of a provocateur, and somehow it comes as no surprise that her models are theatrical grenade-throwers like Bertolt Brecht and Wallace Shawn.
And yet a girlish shyness finds Gilman addressing many of her remarks, prefaced or punctuated by giggles, directly to the floor, and she admits she frequently reminds herself to speak louder. The youngest of four, she was raised in Trussville, a small town outside Birmingham, Alabama. "My father grew up Jewish in Boston, and my mother is Southern Baptist," she says, "so in a way we always had a sense of the world outside us."
In high school she wrote poetry (bad, she assures) and prize-winning short stories, and, though unaware of any specific impetus, she began writing plays at college -- Middlebury, site of the bias incident she'd later use as the basis for Spinning Into Butter, and, later, Birmingham Southern.
"I had this theater professor who would always tell us that plays don't take place onstage and they don't take place in the audience," she says. "They take place in the air between the audience and the stage. And I always loved that image."
By the time Spinning Into Butter opened at the Goodman, Gilman had been writing plays for nearly half her 35 years and had the rejections (150 or so) as well as the playbills from college and tiny nonprofit theater-company productions to prove it (including, as it happens, a staging in the Young Playwrights Festival at the Public Theater). The Goodman imprimatur gave her the sense of having finally reached the big time; after three years spent scoring and composing questions for a standardized-testing service, she is perhaps more sensitive than most to gradations of critical assessment. She'll thank you not to call her "promising" even though she was the first American to win the Evening Standard Award for most p-word playwright. "I wonder," she wonders, "what more do I have to do, and who makes the decision that I've done it -- whatever it is?"
New York audiences will have more and more opportunities to find out. Boy Gets Girl, a thriller about a blind date turned stalker that showcases a classic Gilman theme -- objectification -- will be produced next season by the Manhattan Theater Club, and several other productions are in the offing as well.
In New York, there will be no post-performance discussions after Spinning Into Butter, and that's fine with Gilman: "I hoped it would be the kind of play that would send people home talking."