Playwright Tracey Scott Wilson found the inspiration for her latest work, "Buzzer," in a story that she could not shake. The tale, replete with racial fear and tragic misunderstanding, was told to her by well-known Broadway director George C. Wolfe, who has been an idol and mentor.
In the story, an esteemed university is seeking to expand into its gritty urban neighborhood. Members of the neighboring community rise up in spirited protest. One night, a campus security guard, not wanting to appear to be racist, lets an unknown black man who is not a student into a dorm building. The stranger rapes two female students.
The convulsive episode might have been prevented, Wilson suggests, if the security guard did not fear being called a name for turning away a black man.
"The biggest issue we have in this country is race, and it's an issue that Americans don't talk about much," she said. "We talk around it, under and above it. We use code words like blue-collar and affirmative action, food stamps and Rust Belt. We all know what these words mean but everyone has learned not to say it out loud. And our fear, our lack of honest conversation, partly because our media plays gotcha, has real consequences."
Wilson, 45, is best-known for "The Story," which was produced at Pillsbury House a few seasons back, and "The Good Negro," produced at New York's Public Theatre in 2009. The story that Wolfe relayed was like an irritant that she hopes she has at last turned into a pearl with her play. The dark comedy was commissioned by the Guthrie Theater and Pillsbury House Theatre, where it previews Thursday and premieres Friday.
"Tracey is a playwright with a keen sense of history and an acute eye for the moment," said producer Faye Price, co-producing artistic director at Pillsbury House. "She tackles big issues in astute and absorbing ways."
"Buzzer" centers on a rising young black lawyer who has returned to the now-gentrifying urban neighborhood where he grew up. He has brought along his girlfriend, who is white. The other character is his best friend, a recovering drug addict, who also is white. Actors Namir Smallwood, Sara Richardson and Hugh Kennedy play the three roles in a show that deals with interpersonal tensions around love, sex and race.
Like the story that triggered Wilson's imagination, the "Buzzer" characters' inability to deal honestly with the issues before them lead to problems that could have been prevented.
"You can't put big ideas on the stage, you need to put people up there," said Wilson. "I was curious about the term 'postracial.' It's bandied about a lot these days as if we no longer are a part of history, as if everything that happened in this country has gone away. These characters are a way to explore that and some other ideas."
Wilson nurtured her passion for character development and storytelling in Newark, N.J., where she grew up the youngest of four. She spent many hours at the library with her film-loving older brother, screenwriter George Wilson. She would do research and read. He would dig into movies.
At home, "he would put up a sheet and project these avant-garde European movies by Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman," she said. "I was watching stuff I probably shouldn't have been watching for my age, but it was deep and fascinating."
There was always intense discussion around the films, she added, and she learned a lot about storytelling and structure from such works.
Lately, she has been arguing about the term postracial. Some of the shibboleths around race have fallen, she admitted. Race is not as germane as it once was.
"Kids are growing up without much awareness of the bitter history," she said. "But it doesn't mean that race doesn't matter. To the contrary."
Wilson pointed to the Republican presidential nomination contest, where naked and coded discussions of race have been central features.
"The most galling thing and most hilarious thing for me was when [presidential candidate Rick] Santorum told an Iowa audience that he doesn't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money," she said. "Everyone knows that's what he said and that's what he meant. But he felt a need [later] to say that he meant to say something else and it came out as blah people, which makes no sense.
"And Newt Gingrich is not even trying to use any code. He straight up says blacks should demand paychecks instead of food stamps, as if black people don't want to work and the government is handing out food stamps willy-nilly."
The macro issues get her worked up but "Buzzer" is just a play, she said. "I hope it doesn't sound didactic," Wilson said. "My characters' lack of discussion about race, about what bothers them, leads to misunderstandings -- to bad results. In any relationship, you have to come with an open heart and be ready to do the hard work."