In this earnest, ambitious piece, Synetic alumnus John Milosich attempts to confront racism using song, video, movement, myth, and self-examination. Does he succeed? Well, no, not entirely. But man’s reach should exceed his grasp, as Robert Burns observed, or else what’s a heaven for?
Heaven’s not in Lackawanna, New York, that’s for sure. Milosich’s story begins there, in a donut shop on the corner of Ridge and South Park, a mile or so from Buffalo. He is five years old. At the instigation of his adored father, he walks up to an elderly African-American man, sitting on a bench, and – all cheerful innocence – hurls an obscene racial epithet at him.
He spends the remainder of the piece trying to apologize.
I am looking at the corner of Ridge and South Park now, courtesy of Google Satellite, and also courtesy of my own memory, since I grew up, and spent the first forty years of my life, not fifteen miles from the spot. It is a ragged place, full of tatterdemalion buildings repurposed for small things: dollar stores, lottery palaces, secondhand clothing shops and the like. On one corner is the magnificent Our Lady of Victory Basilica, built at a time when Western New York was full of hope, and everything seemed possible.
Racism is as virulent there as the plague was in 17th-century London, and it is of a wonderfully specific kind: the bigotry of white men who have been hollowed out by fear. Forty-five years ago it was common to graduate from high school and get a job at the steel plant for $17 an hour (in 1966 money!) the next day. But those times are long gone, and Buffalo’s economy would depress even a Rotarian. Milosich’s dad darkly blames affirmative action for his woes and those of his friends, and accuses self-dealing blacks for shattering his dream of the past, when everything was fat with joy (and, more specifically, accuses the African-American auto inspector of flunking John’s car because John is white.)
Milosich is superb when he invokes his father, and his father’s friends, as they generate justifications for their bigotry toward African-Americans and – a more recent development – Arab-Americans. (Lackawanna has a large Yemenite population. In 2003, six Lackawanna residents plead guilty to participating in terrorist activities.) His replication of the unique Buffalo diction, with its flat As and wispy Hs, is spot-on, and at the same time he achieves great separation among his army of characters. He delivers these characters authentically, and without a hit of condescension. His dad’s bigotry, and the bigotry of his dad’s friends, spring from their belief systems, and is as integral to their lives as belief in God or the scientific method might be for you or me. It does not spring, as you might have originally suspected, from an evil heart, and Milosich allows himself to be surprised by a story from his father’s past which casts him in a more complex light.
Milosich is also superb – and this will not surprise you if you saw him in Metamorphosis – at acting with his body. He expertly mimics a man with deep back pain; the loose posture of an enormously corpulent man; himself, swimming in the Adriatic – anything, really, which can be conveyed by movement. And he is candid and compelling as he describes his own fumbling struggles with race, including a misbegotten attempt to introduce a Latina heartthrob to “Mexican New Year” (a made-up holiday to celebrate the drinking of Tequila) and his catastrophic efforts to engage his African-American students in the life of Nelson Mandela.
But the rest – eh, not so great. With the exception of a nice tune about Mandela, the musical interludes – Milosich has a passable voice, but his piano-playing needs some work – neither entertain nor edify. The video clips, in which Milosich plays all the roles, look like they were retrieved from the “Saturday Night Live” cutting-room floor after the first night of editing. And an extended passage in which he fantasizes about battling self-help guru Anthony Robbins and a herd of ninjas in order to rescue Mandela from his South African prison is simply incomprehensible.
The first thing they teach in writing class is to write what you know. This is hard news for those of us who don’t know all that much, but Milosich knows the white man’s experience of racism, and understands important things about the relationship between fathers and sons. To the extent that The Race is about these subjects, it succeeds. To the extent that it is about arty experiments in the form – well, retract that reach a little, my brother.
The Race continues thru May 22, 2011 at the Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring, MD.
Written and Performed by John Milosich
Directed by Regie Cabuci
Produced by Doorway Arts and Arts Alive at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, without intermission
Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You