Crossing the Color Bar 

Charm School teaches bigotry a lesson with humor

Sooner or later, playwrights Larry Larson and Eddie Levi Lee always take a chain saw to something. As founders of Atlanta's irreverent Southern Theatre Conspiracy in the 1980s and writers of more recent comedies like Wuthering! Heights! The! Musical!, Larson and Lee can be gleefully wicked satirists who treat roaring power tools as their signature prop. In their new play, Charm School, a tech support guru (Kathleen Link) so confuses a man (Spencer G. Stephens), that he eventually goes for his laptop with a saw blade.

Short, broad sketches that hinge on racial tension provide energetic running jokes in Essential Theatre's world premiere production of Charm School. Co-winner of the 2006 Essential Playwriting Award for local writers, Charm School scrutinizes society's changing attitudes toward ethnic tolerance, a topic that's both timely and rife with comedic possibilities. Larson and Lee don't run riot at the play's Diversity Sensitivity Seminar, however. Instead, the raucous writing team plays it surprisingly straight and approaches political correctness not with a chain saw but a magnifying glass.

Charm School begins at a baking supply company in South Georgia -- not the first place you'd look for a colorblind workplace. Joe (Joseph Leonard), the young Jewish manager, tries to untangle a racially charged lawsuit and complaints that center around Ray (Daniel Burnley), a beloved senior worker fond of racially insensitive jokes. Ray rebuffs the suggestion that he take early retirement to defuse the situation, so instead Joe orders Ray to a week-long diversity seminar in the Pacific Northwest. Joe comes along for moral support amid the lectures, group exercises and role-playing skits.

How do you solve a problem like Ray? Larson and Lee insightfully craft the role as a prime example of an aging generation of Southerner with a kind, comradely word for everyone, as well as decades of ingrained, unpleasant attitudes. Ray's unrepentant pride ruffles feathers at the seminar, but Joe can't dismiss the older man as just a Southern bigot. He's a cheerful, big-hearted man and practically Joe's surrogate father. But can a racist be free of hate? Can Ray change the beliefs of a lifetime, or must he be isolated from modern, forward-thinking society?

Were Ray transparently hostile to other races, Charm School would lack momentum, but Burnley's gregarious performance goes a long way to sell the character, giving Ray an infectious sense of humor and even a wounded defensiveness. His speech about how he feels discrimination as a Southern white male, invariably treated as ignorant and violent, turns conventional prejudice on its head. Leonard gives a less nuanced portrayal as Joe but helps put the two men's relationship at the play's center.

The play's most lively and compelling scenes often involve Sheila (Laurie Beasley), a teacher who thinks herself a racist despite her liberal sensitivity: Her workplace transgression was using the word "niggardly" in the classroom. When she and Joe argue over the propriety of a joke about mimes in the Holocaust, or whether the human condition is invariably racist, Charm School compellingly sets ideologies against each other, comparable to the air-clearing confrontations of Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter.

The recurring sketches lighten the mood while walking the fine line of trafficking in racial stereotypes without being genuinely ugly. For instance, Link plays a Jewish patient who assumes that an African-American doctor succeeded in medicine thanks to affirmative action.

Directed by Ellen McQueen, Charm School shows some of the clunkiness of a new script, such as the early scenes' heavy exposition. Touchy-feely seminar director Carol (Ann Woodly) comes across as too saintly, although she intriguingly argues that modern-day corporations have become the most effective settings for contemporary social change. Still, Charm School could use a little more skepticism toward such well-intentioned but imperfect attempts to remake society. Superficially likable, Ray cannot or will not admit that "offensiveness" lies in the eye of the offended. The good ol' boy becomes a dinosaur, and dinosaurs apparently have no place cracking jokes in the break room.

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