A 'Buzzer' that's right on time

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON
  • Updated: February 21, 2012 - 10:02 AM

REVIEW: A compelling, well-acted new play turns on touchy issues of racial identity.

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Namir Smallwood and Sara Richardson in "Buzzer" at Pillsbury House Theatre.

Director Marion McClinton’s work in “Buzzer” is like that of a master DJ. He segues quickly and seamlessly between scenes while keeping everything and everyone in balance and in the groove. His quick-change work, complemented by the superb performances of a magnificent trio of actors, sharpens the tensions in Tracey Scott Wilson’s compelling new drama.

“Buzzer,” which premiered Friday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, is topical. Without being overly didactic, the play addresses the notion that the United States has moved past the caste system based in race that long has undermined our high ideals.

Young African-American lawyer Jackson (Namir Smallwood), who is obsessed with his smartphone, has bought a place in the gritty urban neighborhood where he grew up. It is now being gentrified. Moving in with Jackson is his white girlfriend, Suzy (Sara Richardson), whose teaching job is in question. Jackson and Suzy invite Jackson’s longtime prep-school best friend, Don (Hugh Kennedy), a recovering addict who has been cut off by his wealthy father, to live with them on a temporary basis. But Don brings more than just his two trash bags’ worth of belongings to the drama. He has history with both parties, and that past, plus his addiction, has a pull that powers the drama.

In this one-act, Wilson has delivered a taut, well-structured work, with strongly suggestive overlapping dialogue. For the most part, the playwright resists the temptation to use her characters as mouthpieces. There are a couple of places where they sound like they are about to launch into lectures, but mercifully don’t. The characters do revert to form, or to expected roles, offering a stark answer to the idea that the nation is “postracial.”

The acting is beautiful. Kennedy’s recovering addict is physically and mentally askew. Kennedy gives Don a nervous twitching and a furtiveness that serve the plot well. The actor’s pretty-boy looks also help to further the tension of the play.

Smallwood’s Jackson is like a bandleader. He is smooth and operating on many levels at once. He does not say all he knows, in part because he seems to want to will into being a different ending than what one might traditionally expect. Smallwood nails the role.

Richardson gives a breakout performance as Suzy, a character who, in a moment of fear, tries to find what is familiar and comforting. She manifests Suzy’s psychological complexity with a battery of physical expressions, including furrowed brows and a tremulous quaver.

In the end, “Buzzer” offers, through three characters, a sobering assessment of the difficulty of moving past history. The fraught, charged play is right on time.

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    Saturday February 11, 2012

    For playwright Tracey Scott Wilson, whose "Buzzer" premieres this week at Pillsbury House Theatre, "postracial" is a new American dream.

  • BUZZER

    What: Tracey Scott Wilson. Directed by Marion McClinton.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends March 18.

    Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: Pay-what-you-can. 612-825-0459 or pillsburyhousetheatre.org.

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