Solitaire | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Cafe Voltaire

"Has being black affected your work?"

It's a question that frustrates Danny, a black artist, in Solitaire, Lydia Gartin's new play. As far as Danny is concerned it should be glaringly evident that yes, being black has affected her work. What she finds infuriating is the implication that it is the only thing her work is about. A beautiful rose, Danny observes, should be able to hold up its head on its own, without a piece of florist's wire wrapped around the stem, piercing the bud. Strip an artist's race away, and her work won't necessarily collapse without it. Race is integral to experience, and the artist draws on her experience; but too often the fact that an artist is black is imposed on his or her work, forcing it--like a cut rose--into an unnatural position.

Danny (played with easy charisma by Gartin herself) understands all this very well, but can't seem to apply the same understanding to her relationship with her white lover, Bob. When the two of them are not trying to ignore their racial differences, they're imposing stereotypes on each other--albeit liberal stereotypes. The play centers on their relationship, through a series of conversations in the apartment they share, as they struggle to reach common ground, a place where no racial tensions can creep up on them. Or that seems to be Bob's fondest wish. Played with deadpan charm by Jim Lasko, the patient Bob seeks only to maintain an even strain. He sits, stone-faced, through Danny's tirades about racial injustices, asserts that he is trying to understand, offers that he would trade places with her if he could. He means well, and one can't help but like him, but it's easy to see that Bob hasn't got a clue about what it means to be a black woman, much less a black artist. His memory of their first meeting puts her in an Afro and a T-shirt with a black-power message. When she reminds him that she was wearing braids and that her T-shirt said "Camp Sandybrook," he seems blissfully unaware that his memory has been affected by what Danny has come to represent for him; it has nothing to do with the woman herself.

"You made me an image," she tells him. "I needed one. I stepped into it, and it fit." She is more accepting of this image than she would have been if he'd tried to impose it on her art.

For Bob, the concept of racial injustice is just that: a concept. It is incomprehensible to him in any real way, and he is reluctant to examine it closely. It might cause him pain, and he deals with pain by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Racism is reduced to an issue, a topic of discussion. When Bob gets tired of talking about "topics," Danny points out that what may be a topic to him is everyday life for her. On those occasions when he seems willing to listen, she tells him she just doesn't have the energy to make him understand.

Solitaire's interracial relationship and central conflict are strongly reminiscent of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. But the relationship in Jungle Fever has no substance; because the basis of attraction seems purely sexual, there's never an exchange of ideas between the two. Gartin's story-telling technique is less sophisticated than Lee's--her scenes tend to ramble, and the play doesn't have much structure. But she offers a more evolved relationship based on mutual needs, and she explores those needs: male and female, white and black. Her lovers are likable, open-minded, and so desperate to connect that they seem to do nothing but exchange ideas.

Unfortunately, as Lenny Bruce said, "Intellectual understanding don't mean shit." If this couple wants to survive, the next step is mutual acceptance, and an empathic understanding. Though Danny and Bob discuss racial questions constantly, they tiptoe around the real issue. Does the color of the lover's skin affect their relationship? In a perfect world, in a vacuum, the answer would be no. But in our culture, one may as well ask a black artist if the color of her skin has affected her work.

Gartin never falls into preachiness, and it's refreshing to see a play about racism that points a finger at the liberal crowd--those of us who pride ourselves on our lack of prejudice and our open minds. It's not enough to talk to one another, Gartin seems to be saying. We have to hear each other if we're ever going to get anywhere.

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