Hugh Kennedy, Sara A. Richardson, Namir Smallwood. Photo © Michal Daniel, 2013

Hugh Kennedy, Sara A. Richardson, Namir Smallwood. Photo © Michal Daniel, 2013

That the twenty-first century, and even the election of Barack Obama, have not ushered in a true “post-racial” consciousness within American society is a topic still in need of serious debate. In her play Buzzer, which opened on Friday at The Guthrie, playwright Tracey Scott Wilson contends that in fact the question of racial tension and disparity still oversees our views and actions, and disposes us to act – and react – in ways that surprise ourselves.

But Wilson has done more than that. In a script built of quick dialogues and overlapping scenes, the play enacts the inherent difficulties in practicing “post-racial” attitudes even among those who sincerely believe they are free from subscribing to them.

Jackson (Namir Smallwood) is a young African American who has achieved the dream of social integration and has earned a law degree from Harvard. Along with his white girlfriend Suzy (Sara A. Richardson), he moves into the fallen-in neighborhood of his childhood, with the aspiration to contribute to the rehabilitation of its conditions. Joining the couple is Jackson’s boyhood friend Don (Hugh Kennedy), a recovering alcoholic and addict, estranged from his rich father who had financially supported Jackson and his mother in the past.

The young characters in Buzzer who act with the dynamism and the intent characteristic of people of conviction, find themselves engulfed not simply by the reality of racial forces, but also by the pressures of social change in general. And here emerges the strength of the play: even when evil social barriers are mitigated, interpersonal and social disharmonies often dictate the course of action.

Indeed these brawls boil up between the three friends, just as they characterize all human interaction. But instead of remaining seemingly unrelated to the question of race, the complication in the drama points to a phenomenon that is as real as any change: it is Jackson who is closely attached to his cell phone, the socially ambiguous technological innovation; it is also Jackson who repeatedly uses the word “gentrification,” a term usually attributed to a deliberate plan to displace a poor population and provide space for the affluent, that is mostly white people. Even at an age of cracks in blatant racism, we see in the play that hierarchies and accusations have a way of navigating themselves toward the less privileged.

Under the direction of Marion McClinton and within the drawn confines of the set designed by Dean Holzman, the intensity of relationships – within and outside questions of race – assume a life force that is enhanced by the actors’ capacity to recognize the ironies that life plays on any moral attempt.

Buzzer, a Pillsbury House Theatre production by Tracey Scott Wilson. Directed by Marion McClinton. Set design by Dean Holzman. At The Guthrie, February 8 – March 3, 2013, the Dowling Studio. Tickets at 818 South 2nd Street Minneapolis, MN 55415 612 3772224 or

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