Arts & Culture

'Spinning into Butter' tackles tough questions

From left, Travis Nefores, Amy Barrick, Elaine Fournier and Michael Siebrass.
From left, Travis Nefores, Amy Barrick, Elaine Fournier and Michael Siebrass. COURTESY OF SLO LITTLE THEATRE

Fine acting and insightful dialogue make “Spinning into Butter” a theater experience that may stick with you as you ponder the questions it poses.

The play by Rebecca Gilman is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont as its staff and students are jolted from their homogenous existence by a racial incident. The characters are well-drawn as they confront what it means to the school and, even more, what it means to each of them.

Dean Sarah Daniels, recently hired to encourage cultural diversity at the mostly white school, is shocked when a black freshman reports receiving threatening notes.

The other deans, Catherine Kenny and Burton Strauss, are older and entrenched in the bureaucracy of preserving the school’s reputation. But Dean Daniels calls the police before they can stop her.

The knee-jerk reaction to the racist threat is to set up student-staff forums to discuss racism. Daniels had come from a position at a school in Chicago with a mostly black student body, a job she had sought with altruism, but as events in Vermont unfold she is forced to confront her own repressed racism.

A bright, bold student turns out to be one of the catalysts for the dean’s introspection. She encourages Patrick Chibas, a New Yorker with Puerto Rican ancestry, to apply for a minority scholarship, and in the process he challenges the fact that she is placing him in an ethnic pigeonhole. Their volatile relationship raises questions of identity—how one is perceived versus how he perceives himself.

Dean Daniels’ romantic relationship with Ross Collins, a teacher, is a subplot, but Collins is important to the story as he asks the questions she finds herself forced to answer regarding her own feelings.

Lisa Woske directs the excellent cast. Amy Barrick is strong and sympathetic as Daniels. She flows naturally with the well-written dialogue, going convincingly from drama to moments of humor. The questions the dean asks herself are questions many of us can relate to, or ask of each other.

Redzuan Abdul Rahim, as student Patrick, is a live wire. He captures the frustration of his position perfectly as a student who refuses to fit a mold. He’s a strong actor, and hopefully we will see more of him.

Dean Strauss is a cantankerous old-style administrator, and Michael Siebrass nails the character that riles nearly everyone, student and staff. He is especially good as he retells the story of Little Black Sambo, who sets the tigers that threaten him into a whirling frenzy, “spinning into butter.”

Elaine Fournier inhabits the role of Dean Kenney, another staid staffer with little sympathy for anyone involved.

Pam Hester plays a caring security officer, concerned for both Dean Daniels and the black student, whom we never see. Harry Sadler is good as a student who initially takes advantage of the situation for his own gain, but finds himself in a positive role in the end.

The set is the office of Dean Daniels, and the scenes change with blackouts, with Daniels dressed differently in each scene to mark the passing of time. David Linfield is set designer and costumes are by Zandi Peters.

This is a provocative play, with questions not only about racism in general, but about how we react, what we really feel. It touches on political correctness and terminology, but the deeper implications concern “us” and “them,” and how we set ourselves apart from one another. It may inspire questions of your own (mine is why we call Barack Obama our first black president, when he’s half white).

But this is not a pedantic play. It doesn’t preach and it doesn’t offer any answers. Instead, it’s a good story, well told, about one woman’s dilemma and her search for self-understanding.