Vincent Terrell Durham Serves Cocktails & Dash of Guilt
by Evelyn Arevalo
Vincent Terrell Durham is unapologetic in his portrayal of problematic white saviors. “Polar Bears” explores white guilt, but it’s more than a racially charged play. Durham deep dives into themes of colorism, classism, fetishization, and queerness–displaying American horrors before the George Floyd protests.
The raucous ending reflects a Black America that refuses to live under police abuse and murder, any longer.
Sponsored by 40 theaters and introduced by congenial producer Aldo Billingslea as A Juneteenth Theater Justice Project, “Polar Bears” is streaming as a staged reading until June 30, by Playground-SF. Without staging, the actors bring their roles to life with fine acting and interaction. Rita Dupree (heart-wrenching Jennifer Bradford) embodies a grieving Black mother, who asserts that if it would take an “Endangered Species Act” to protect her 12-year-old son from murder by cops, she would agree to that!
Dupree’s speech on black boys and their imagination, about her son’s playing in the park, is supremely moving. Bradford transcends the role to show a mother whose son, Elijah, has been murdered by a cop. Crying all through her lament, I feel and see her face crumble upon itself.
“Polar Bears” invites us into the home of liberal white couple, Molly (witty Carrie Paff) and Peter (sympathetic Michael Ray Wisely), in their renovated Harlem townhouse, with their adopted Black son Jason. The couple are throwing a cocktail party for friends who are Black Lives Matter activists–including Rita Dupree.
Before guests arise, they have a hilarious debate: Should they call their guests African American or Black? They are so self-consciously “woke”! Molly has given the night off to their Black maid, whom Molly hilariously renames a “household assistant.”
Passionate about human encroachment, Molly cannot admit that they have pushed poorer Black residents out of Harlem. Their gentrifying has brought police down on Harlem’s men, women, and children. We see the white takeover happen in our expensive cities: I can see it in my own backyard in San Francisco.
Their first guest, Harlem native Shemeka (sparkling Britney Frazier) is keenly aware of intruding Starbucks and Whole Foods. Outspoken and delightful, Shemeka oozes style, confidence, and a quick trigger.
Mellow Jaquan (charming Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.) could get me to sign any petition. An active member of Black Lives Matter, his calm disposition makes him immediately attractive. Jaquan is the coolest person in the room; but his angry, addictive white boyfriend Tom (edgy Patrick Russell) is looking for trouble, always. White Tom argues for Black rights–even with the taxi driver. He’s out of control.
By the end, congenial humor and deep animosities break out. We are left with a vision of Elijah and Jaquan confronting a destiny dictated by class and race. “Polar Bears” is not for the faint of heart–but every non-Black person should see it. Durham confronts us with the terrible reality: The killings won’t stop on their own.
What can we do–surely an Endangered Species Act for Black kids is bizarre–or is it? “Polar Bears” helps us see class and race more honestly. It lets us look within to see our privileges.
“Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids” by Vincent Terrell Durham, directed by Peter J. Kuo –Streamed by playground-sf.org through June 30, 2020.
Cast: Carrie Paff, Michael Ray Wisely, Britney Frazier, Jennifer Bradford, Rodney E. Jackson, Jr., Patrick Russell, and Gabriel Q. Solomon.
Banner photo: Gabriel Q. Solomon & Rodney E. Jackson, Jr.