America’s problems with race relations may be particularly raw at present, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and many others. Without detracting from that unique struggle, it’s worth remembering that this kind of prejudice isn’t exclusive to the US. It cuts across class, culture and country, and – like that persistent mould around the sink – it just keeps cropping up no matter how many times you scour your mind out with the bleach of human kindness.
American playwright and journalist Aurin Squire has written extensively on the intersections of race and society, and his latest play is an earnest examination of these inextricable issues. It follows Sheryl and Richard, a well-matched pair of New York academics sharing thoughts on their relationship through a series of webcam interviews. Selected to represent ‘seriously intelligent interracial couples,’ they find their progressive politics don’t hold up when an unplanned pregnancy causes them to messily unpack their cultural baggage.
Obviously this is a profoundly complex theme, and it’s refreshing to see an unashamedly intellectual approach taken to such weighty issues. That being said, the play is peppered with daft wordplay, half a dozen nursery rhymes and one use of the memorable phrase ‘vodka- ruptured anuses,’ so it shouldn’t be accused of being too highbrow.
What it can be accused of, though, is feeling less like drama and more like a dissertation. There is a wealth of incisive analysis and insightful observation, confronting some assumptions from fascinatingly unfamiliar angles. Why do we consider Barack Obama black, for example, rather than mixed race? Why does misogyny often go hand in hand with a postcolonial mindset?
Throughout the play, we hear discussions of racial profiling, cultural cringe, and the dumbing-down of public discourse, but these conversations are more debate than dialogue. Nothing drives the action forward except a sense that both characters are frustrated at being unable to overcome – or even recognise – their own internalized prejudice through intellect alone. Richard repeatedly rolls out the old line that ‘everything is a political statement,’ but the text goes to great lengths to show the Sisyphean struggle of trying to live up to that standard.
Don’t Smoke in Bed is on until 22nd March 2016 at Finborough Theatre. Click here for tickets.