The Firestorm pulls its punches in its examination of white privilege | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

The Firestorm pulls its punches in its examination of white privilege 

Our hero a racist? No sirree!

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courtesy the artist

The premise of Meridith Friedman's 2015 drama sounds all too familiar: Patrick, a popular white politician running for a high office and doing well in the polls, may be brought down by revelations of racist behavior in college. As part of a fraternity initiation, he and another white boy spray-painted "Go Home [N-word]" on the door of a black student's dorm room. Now, Friedman invites us to believe, he is being forced to face the consequences of his actions.

What is frustrating about Friedman's play, at least as it has been interpreted in First Folio Theatre's otherwise well-produced show (directed by Rachel Lambert), is that it pulls its punches, taking pains to show that the white male protagonist (played by Steve O'Connell) is really a nice guy—not racist at all!—and that, to some extent, he is being unfairly called to account. In other words, this seems to be the story of a good white man being brought down because one little incident in his youth makes him look like one of the bad ones. (You see, he was forced by his peers to do what he did, and besides he resigned from the fraternity right after the incident.)

To her credit, Friedman touches on some aspects of white privilege—Patrick clearly feels immune to charges of racism because his wife (played with verve and wit by Melanie Loren) is African American—but she annoyingly leaves many other aspects unexplored. She teases us with good questions—why, for example, did Patrick never bother to apologize for his actions when he was still in college?—but never finds time to explore possible answers. Her play is meant to give right-minded audiences a horror-show thrill by forcing them to glance down into America's void, the deep white supremacist assumptions that still undergird our culture. And then she steps back from the brink and changes the subject.   v

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