Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Racial tensions give Brownie Points a case of cabin fever

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2010 at 3:40 PM

Theatrical Outfit’s dramedy Brownie Points depicts the most uncomfortable imaginable camping trip that doesn’t include a slasher in a hockey mask. Five mothers bring more than a dozen girls to a remote cabin to commune with nature, only to encounter torrential downpours, falling trees, a power failure and unhealthy snacks.

In its world premiere production, Brownie Points comes equipped with all the essential gear for a comedy of tender-footed city slickers forced to rough it in the great outdoors. Instead of escaping big city pressures, however, the characters face the unspoken racial tensions between the three white and two black moms on the trip. In guiding the action, Atlanta playwright Janece Shaffer too much resembles trip organizer Allison (Carolyn Cook), who overloads the getaway with so many events, the overnight vacation feels micromanaged.

Initially the other moms (including Mary Kathryn Kaye and Nevaina Rhodes) roll their eyes at Allison’s overbearing hyperactivity. Things take a turn for the worse when Deirdre (Terry Burrell), a successful doctor, points out that Allison (Carolyn Cook) assigned the African-American women kitchen duty for the entire visit. Compounding her insensitivity, Allison unwittingly chose a cabin in Forsyth County, Georgia, a region notorious for its ignoble racial history. Bitter arguments erupt within earshot of the daughters, although given that the little girls remain off-stage, it’s difficult to tell how close they’re meant to be to the grown-up conversations.

Directed by Jasmine Guy, Brownie Points’s fast-paced hour and a half switches from raging confrontations to Macarena dance numbers to supportive hugs, barely leaving the audience a chance to get its bearings. Two of Shaffer’s most recent productions, the Alliance Theatre’s Bluish and Managing Maxine,  benefited from sharp narrative focus, but Brownie Points takes on too many ideas in too brief a time, reminiscent of the playwright’s earlier work, The Genes of Beauty Queens, which also had an overambitious blend of situation comedy and wrenching confessions.

Brownie Points’s angriest blow-outs come so early that the play struggles afterwards to find its footing, and requires unlikely contrivances to keep the women together. Despite Cook and Burrell’s considerable stage presence, Allison and Deirdre prove so abrasive, they throw the narrative off-balance (although once we know their back-stories, the more extreme facets of their behavior makes more sense).

The play succeeds best with its witty dialogue about middle-class racial expectations, like a black mom’s admission, “I have never read Beloved. Or The Color Purple,” or a white mom’s protest that she can’t be a racist because “I did the Kwanzaa table for three years” at her daughter’s school. Courtney Patterson offers a charming turn as the wisecracking Jewish mom who becomes the de facto go-between for the white and black women. Still, Brownie Points seeks too much humor in the moms' many gripes about the overnight trip. The debates over unconscious prejudice become a welcome alternative to the complaints about camping, although the play succeeds as a "teaching moment."

Brownie Points. Through Feb. 28. $15-35. Wed.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org.

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