College campuses in America are a hotbed of cultural discourse. As they should be. However, unlike the last hundred years of existing as a space for entire generations to generate a stance on progressivism, collective academic discourse has become confusing. If student bodies aren’t being accused of being violent anti-extremist extremists, they’re instead accused of too quickly retreating into safe spaces.
As national conversations of race shift and boil over, so too does the world of academia. Baltimore, a play by Kirsten Greenidge, places a diverse cast of characters with a diverse range of opinions into this impossible noise machine/puzzle box. Fiona (Gabrielle Kogut), a white, female student, draws a racist caricature on the whiteboard of Alissa (Tyler Cruz), who is black. Fiona, who grew up in a primarily black neighborhood and is dating a black student, claims her experience grants her immunity to the ‘r’ word and refuses to take responsibility for her actions.
Yet, it would be unfair to say that Pitt’s production is a dry, self-serious affair. Director Ricardo Vila-Roger is more than happy to reinforce Greenidge’s moments of levity, particularly in the easily overwhelmed Shelby (Daria M. Sullivan), a black student who refuses to identify or be identified by her race. She’s a likable person with some questionable beliefs; she is also a reminder that trying to out-debate a college dean before you’ve even attained your BA is a categorically awful idea.
Shelby’s intentional absence from most of the show’s more explosive conversations is in itself worth dissecting. It is her inalienable right to choose how she defines herself, but exactly how little space does that grant her in a conversation about wider cultural conversations? And when does a strict, colorless perspective become active oppression?
Just as Shelby is an excellent window into racial ethics that go beyond simple good vs. evil paradigms, she is also an unfortunate stand-in for the play’s moments of thematic weightlessness. Baltimore is a series of monologues in its second act, many of which stand up to scrutiny in the moment but start to feel like a series of belabored pontifications as they begin to accrue.
There are so many moments of revelation and reflection that characters quickly begin losing their humanity and instead become interactive embodiments of cultural perspective; we learn a lot about demographic identity but the all-important notion of individual identity is lost. That Shelby’s role is to be a pre and post arbiter of the ‘I don’t see race’ perspective makes sense on paper, but in practice her re-emergence into the play makes her feel oddly out of place. Baltimore ceased to be about these specific people an act ago, so we’re basically left waiting for her larger monologue about why her perspective has earned saliency.
Baltimore, rather uniquely, is a play in which the problem is also the solution. How else can one solve conflicts that emerge naturally from charged racial discourse other than with more charged racial discourse? In this way, Greenidge’s play doesn’t suggest a solution so much as it urges us to remain present, and with an open ear. Even Fiona, a character that very easily could descend into outright villainhood, is at worst an ignorant bully; maybe she’s not so easy to relate to, sure, but she isn’t so bad as to warrant an outright dismissal, either.
I exited the Henry Heymann Theater feeling totally in my head, mentally digesting the play as a kind of unsolvable Rubik’s cube with way too many of one color. Baltimore is a thoughtful play and as a result, it will generate thought in those who choose to attend it. Still, its perspective may be too ‘forest-for-the-trees’ to also leave you with a feeling.
Special thanks to Pitt Stages for complimentary press tickets. Baltimore runs at the Henry Heymann Theater through April 9. For tickets and more information, click here.