In the past few days, as I’ve let Kathleen Akerley’s play Whipping, or The Football Hamlet (and this review) settle in my mind, I realize that my review perhaps comes off more harshly critical than I intended. Longacre Lea plays have a deserved reputation of inspiring polarizing, even heated, opinions. Such is the nature of coming into a play with the high expectations that Aklerley has fostered over recent years. But this note is not a retraction, rather, an enhancement.
In the wake of the national furor over the violence in Charlottesville, Whipping gains a new shine of poignancy for its relentless focus on social justice in present context. This component is needed, healthy, and rightly central. The play faces the suffering of people of color and women, flagellating systemic injustice towards them in crucial ways.
But, for me, the most distinctive property of Whipping wasn’t its focus of racial or gender inequity, though the play confronts those issues with biting cracks that have a prescience which can only be borne of an actively working playwright. Nor is it the wild rollercoaster of changes of tone and situation throughout the play. What strikes me as nearly unique in Whipping is its treatment of that most slippery and un-American term, the elephant in the room that has gotten so big we have become accustomed to living inside its guts. I’m talking about class.
Some among us are cursed with the illusion that we live in a post-racial society, and many more Americans still operate under a racial fantasy: that their racism is justifiable by culture, faith, or even science. And one only needs to casually browse any open forum on the internet to see the stagnant toxicity of sexism and the frothy detergent of feminism in pitched battle.
But America prides itself on being a society without class distinction or restriction, a land of opportunity. Most of us couldn’t define class or classism, even as we lay down iron pronouncements on gender and race without equivocation. Is it the size of your assets? Is it your education? Is it like a courtier’s trick—one of dress and speech and manner?
In Whipping, Akerley expresses this confounding principle in the form of Seamus Miller’s Beer Man, who hawks screw top Miller Lights at five bucks a pop while raking in minimum wage plus nonexistent tips. While working class White men aren’t any more of a monolith than Black men or White women, Akerley chooses to give them a voice through the Beer Man, and Miller embodies him in a way that feels familiar to the speaker of Yinzer or Bawlmerese.
But Akerley chooses to give the Beer Man more than a voice. She chooses to give him complexity, moreover, complexity in a political context. I don’t think it’s an accident that the only other playwright I’ve seen do that this well in recent history is Lynn Nottage in Sweat, which just received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Beer Man can be admirable—he tries to take responsibility for himself, he wants life to be fair, and, most importantly, he’s the only person in Whipping who tries to treat Ham (the central character, Black quarterback) as a human being. Not an idea. Not a commodity. A human being.
Don’t get the impression that Akerley uses a wide brush to exonerate working class Whites through Beer Man. He says some awful things, makes damaging assumptions and nourishes bitterness and blame. He’s not a character who inspires unqualified love. But he does evoke empathy. He escapes that other broad brush of brutishness, doltishness, and servility so present in other representations of the White working class.
But why should this matter? Shouldn’t the focus be on other oppressed groups who are the targets of torch-wielding White supremacist hate groups like those in Charlottesville? It should, and Akerley gives them that focus.
But hate has many kinds of targets. Those hate groups aren’t recruiting theater audiences or the postgraduate polo-shirted brunch crowd. The Klan, Oath Keepers, and National Socialists don’t give a damn what the groups they hate and that hate them, or are embarrassed of them, think.
Whipping, or The Football Hamlet
closes September 10, 2017
Details and tickets
Their goal is to recruit Beer Man, who gets ticked when he has to suck down ramen for a week to make rent, and then gets called privileged on some internet forum. They want to get him to raise his arm and shout “White Power” because he feels powerless. They want him to see people who look different than him as the enemy.
The lives of people of color hang in the balance. That’s unjust. That’s life or death. Unfortunately, in this unjust system, those lives are often hanging on the loyalties and opinions of the Beer Men of the American White working class. And it isn’t a stretch to say that American Theater has failed both groups miserably. In terms of representation, outreach, accessibility, and artistry. On all counts, we have failed people of color and the White working class.
What makes Whipping really admirable is its work toward rectifying that failure. More than a scourge against systemic and empathetic shortcomings, Whipping tries to foster reconciliation. I’m not here to claim this play as a perfect example of an attempt to salve the wounds inflicted by American justice or inexpertly salted by American art. But it does, to use an old term have a “raised consciousness” or as the kids might say today, it is pretty “woke.”
Akerley sees that there is a way forward that needs to be walked in American Theater, and with Whipping she has reached out a surrealism-clad foot to tread that path.
[Editor’s note: This essay is part of our Ideas series, meant to encourage thought and discussion of issues sparked by our plays and playwrights. If you wish to submit a post for this column, email your proposal here.]