Fresh off the accolades for its world premiere of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband — which earned best production, best new work and best actor honors at this year’s Carbonell Awards — Island City Stage tackles another searing drama this month with a riveting production of Jeff Talbott’s incendiary The Submission.
The play, which addresses the uncomfortable, impossible topic of race, hinges on a spectacularly bad idea by unsuccessful playwright Danny Larsen (Daniel Gil), who has somehow written a play he believes is good enough to get some attention. The problem is it’s about a black family, and Danny is sure no one will want to produce such a work written by a white guy. So he slaps a different name on the title page — Shaleeha G’ntamobi, and, yes, he chose a name he hoped would sound black, he confesses later — and sends it out.
When the work is accepted into the prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays (a real-life annual festival in Louisville) Danny hires an actress, Emilie (Rita Joe), to play the part of the fictional Shaleeha throughout the course of the play’s development. The plan is that they’ll announce the truth once the play has been successfully performed, both of their careers benefiting from the publicity.
Emilie is understandably wary at first, as are Danny’s best friend Trevor (Ben Sandomir) and his partner Pete (Chris Anthony Ferrer). But like any performer, Emilie is easily seduced by her admiration for the work, and she can’t resist the temptation of a paying job. One of the things The Submission never addresses directly is the scarcity of parts for actresses of color, but that specter hangs over Emilie’s every decision. Her attraction to this role is enough to overcome the lingering doubts she has about Danny, who lets troubling phrases like “you people” slip out of his mouth a little too easily.
But as time goes on, and as Danny and Emilie spend more time working together, tempers flare and tensions mount. As their confrontations escalate, even the audience knows all too well which words are coming — the ones you never, ever say, the ones that land hard and can’t be unsaid. Even when you know they’re coming, they detonate like a bomb in the small Wilton Manors theater, a credit to this excellent cast and director Michael Leeds, whose impeccable timing sets the pace and allows the audience to forget there’s no intermission.
One of the stumbling blocks of The Submission is the suspension of disbelief required to accept that the casually racist Danny could have written an insightful work about another culture (this is, after all, a guy who uses words like “blactors” and firmly believes his experience as a gay man in contemporary America is the cultural equivalent of the African American experience). But Gil sells it all, Danny’s arrogance, his fury, his cluelessness about a privilege he doesn’t even recognize he has. As Emilie, Joe is a steady, calm force until she can’t be calm any longer, and then she’s a hurricane. As Trevor, who has begun dating Emilie and finds himself unhappily acting as peacemaker, Sandomir reflects a empathetic uneasiness, and Ferrer pulls off a few terrific (and desperately needed) comic moments amid all the carnage.
The play throws many valentines to theater insiders, among them a beautifully profane and hilarious off-stage rant by Ferrer on the idiosyncrasies of theater folk and the wink-wink joke early on that Danny’s play is destined to be a hit because it’s a four-character, one-set play, like The Submission itself. But with his set, scenic designer Michael McClain makes a powerful statement, expertly incorporating pages of type that loom over the characters and the action, stressing the weight of words, how we use them and how they backfire on us and loom painfully large whenever we utter them carelessly.
BY CONNIE OGLE