P laywright Antoinette Nwandu achieves an unlikely feat in her new play Breach: A Manifesto on Race in America Through the Eyes of a Black Girl Recovering From Self-Hate , now in its world premiere at Victory Gardens. She manages to take one of the more pressing social issues of the day—African-American women's struggle to claim and exercise legitimate agency in our culture—and renders it incidental.
Nwandu clearly intends the opposite, as the subtitle suggests. At the play's emotional climax, when Margaret, the striving, perpetually frustrated thirtysomething protagonist (played by Caren Blackmore), becomes convinced her life has reached a spirit-crushing dead end, it's apparent Nwandu wants issues of race and gender—and in particular the way internalized racism can weigh down women of color no matter their station in life—to be the driving forces that have sapped Margaret of opportunity and self-worth. But curiously, those forces are largely absent from everything that leads to Margaret's meltdown, making the play's defining crisis feel more academic than emblematic.
We first meet Margaret on a date with her rich, white boyfriend Nate (Keith D. Gallagher), who works, ambiguously, in finance. He's "one good kill" away from "hitting his number," a milestone that will allow him to retire and live extravagantly for the rest of his life, although he's only in his 30s. Unlikely as Nate's economic prospects seem (it's the first of several key plot improbabilities), they function primarily to throw Margaret's predicament into high relief: she's a mere freshman composition teacher at a community college whose appointment as acting assistant to the interim director, a job she feels she deserved, convinces her she's going nowhere.
Perhaps she was passed over, she muses, because unlike Rasheed (Al'Jaleel McGhee), who got the job, she's "not black enough." This problematic sentiment, combined with her insistence that she doesn't date "black guys" and her habit of wearing a wig of long, straight, light brown hair, sets Margaret up as the self-hater in the play's subtitle.
But after this opening scene, Nwandu provides almost no other dramatic evidence of Margaret's internalized racism. Nor does she do much to dramatize the forces specific to race or gender that thwart Margaret's progress. In the very next scene, we watch Margaret interact with Rasheed, her new boss, in a hyperbolically insubordinate manner—on its surface, a more likely explanation for her lack of career advancement than her being a black woman. The fact that she and Rasheed end the scene unaccountably in flagrante delicto only muddies the water further.
As Nwandu sends more troubles Margaret's way—an unwanted pregnancy, frustrations with her elderly live-in great aunt Sylvia, romantic advances from Rasheed, condescension from Nate—we watch Margaret grow progressively more frustrated and frantic, as though she's increasingly trapped. But Nwandu forgets to show us what road Margaret would follow if the way were clear. We learn little of the goals and aspirations she purportedly can't reach (beyond a waxing and waning desire to help her students), makes her entrapment seem more dramatically convenient than inevitable.
Her only source of comfort is Carolina (Karen Rodriguez), a pregnant Mexican-American cleaning woman at her school, whose exuberant chutzpah in the face of her own parallel struggles provides a fleeting antidote to Margaret's feelings of powerlessness.
It all leads to a frustratingly unconvincing breakdown, as Margaret insists that all black men will abandon their families (we've heard of only one, her father) and all black women will remain perpetual underachievers. Overwhelmed, she lashes out viciously at Sylvia, the woman who has cared for her since birth. Had Nwandu more effectively dramatized Margaret's journey to this point, the scene might be devastating. As it is, it feels like a contrived demonstration of the big points the playwright hopes to make.
It's a shame, because Nwandu's writing shows moments of engrossing nuance, the sort that might make Margaret's journey wholly convincing. But Nwandu limits that nuance to Sylvia, the only character who's fully dimensional (and brought to remarkable life by Linda Bright Clay). Sylvia is curmudgeon, sage, do-nothing, and firecracker all in one—a stark contrast to the other characters, who tend to operate at single speeds. Her brief monologue recounting the day of Margaret's birth brings a certain decades-long cultural history to vivid life.
And director Lisa Portes has all the talent necessary in the rest of the cast to tackle the big issues this play inflects. It's unfortunate Nwandu doesn't give them enough material to fulfill their potential. v