Race has long been a salient topic in the United States, but the production of Baltimore by the Department of Performing and Media Arts and the Ithaca Civic Ensemble demonstrates why it is so important to talk about right now. The play touches on crucial concepts such as police brutality, the black-white binary, intersectionality and jokes that go too far, all on a college campus.
An African-American student and RA named Shelby (Edem Dzodzomenyo ’20) goes to interview her university’s new dean, Dean Hernandez (Irving Torres ’18) for the newspaper, and they argue about his convocation speech and the issue of race on campus, which Shelby prefers to ignore. She leaves frustrated about his views on race and goes to vent about the encounter with her best friend, Grace (Sabrina Liu ’20). During their conversation, Grace receives a message and informs Shelby that someone has drawn a caricature of a black woman on the door of Shelby’s resident, Alyssa, who is black. Shelby subsequently receives constant calls from her residents, which she refuses to answer.
Back in the dorm, Shelby’s residents are all dealing with the incident, and Alyssa is nowhere to be found. Fiona (Siobhan Brandman ’17), a white girl who drew the caricature, is defending her actions to Bryant (Marquan Jones ’20), whom she asks to speak about it with Alyssa because he is also black. She insists that it was just a joke and that it was funny, and that if she didn’t intend for it to be hurtful then Alyssa shouldn’t be hurt. Afterwards, Leigh (Delmar Fears ’19), Rachel (Alejandra C W Rodriguez), and Carson (Scott Blankenbaker grad) talk about the incident. Leigh discusses life as an African-American woman, Rachel explains her troubles with the black-white binary as a Latina woman, and Carson, who is white, insists that he doesn’t see race.
Shelby is aware that race has consequences but constantly insists that she doesn’t see race and that we live in a post racial society because she has never been given the tools to talk about race and doesn’t want things to get messy. She expresses envy of her friend Grace who had Chinese school once a week as a way to help her explore her cultural identity, even though Grace has struggled with being seen for who she is instead of as just an Asian girl.
The play does a good job of acknowledging the ways that members of different racial groups are treated beyond the black-white binary. Shelby discusses the deaths of black men at the hands of police while Rachel expresses support for the Black Lives Matter movement but asks, “Where are the Latinos supposed to fit in all that? Or Native lives? They’re dying too!” Leigh’s character also brings up the issue of the intersection between race and gender in discussing life as a black woman, and sexual orientation is touched on when Rachel mentions her girlfriend and Carson says that he is “not sure about the whole hetero thing.” The final conversation between the residents seems to suggest that conversing with those unwilling to listen like Fiona can be productive, which may not be true. However, it is clear that the play intends to start a dialogue about race and to remind the audience that this is necessary, and it certainly accomplishes this.
The cast was excellent, and all of their struggles with their own identities and with talking about race felt very real, especially since racism on college campuses is a topic that the cast and much of the audience has to confront every day. Sabrina Liu’s performance as Grace stood out, as she portrayed convincingly Grace’s struggles with her own identity as well as the delicate situation of wanting to help Shelby’s residents without confronting her best friend.
Baltimore is an extremely timely and relevant play and clearly demonstrates why talking about race is necessary. The cast deals very well with such sensitive issues and makes them feel personal to the audience, helping to open up a dialogue about race in a time when doing so is crucial.
Baltimore will be performed in the Schwartz Center’s Kiplinger Theatre at 7:30 pm on May 5 and at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm on May 6
Emily Fournier is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.