Is a “harmless” racist joke ever really harmless? Do ends sometimes justify means? Are there degrees of truth? These are just a few of the difficult questions raised by This is How it Goes , playwright Neil LaBute’s exploration of exploitation and race relations currently playing at Neptune’s Studio Theatre.
While the questions may be difficult, the play itself is entertaining and accessible, says director Daryl Cloran. “The audience will love it. It’s a funny play and easy to follow…The challenge is that the audience has to decide what they believe.”
Knowing what—or whom—to believe is no easy matter when the story is told through the eyes of a self-described “unreliable narrator.” The narrator readily admits that his version of the rocky interracial marriage of his high school crush, Belinda (or Woman, as she is credited), and the domineering businessman, Cody, might be wishful thinking—not the gospel truth.
The characterization of Cody as an angry black man made actor Xuan Fraser think twice before accepting the role. “I wasn’t sure we needed to see another negative stereotype of black men,” he says. But ultimately, he was won over by the clever construction and the quality of the writing of the piece, as well as by how the viewers are asked to examine their own prejudices.
A resident of Stratford, Ontario, Fraser has experienced racism in his own life, but says, “The racism is much more in-your-face in the States. It’s subtler in Canada, but can be just as crippling.”
Fraser puts the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of parents to raise unprejudiced children and points out that all three characters in This is How it Goes have been negatively affected by their upbringings. The narrator has learned racism at home. Cody is stuck recreating his mother’s betrayals. Belinda has been raised to believe she’ll never be good enough. Together, the characters enable each others’ dark sides.
“They are all just looking for happiness,” says Kristin Bell, who plays Belinda. At the close of the play, it’s not really clear if happiness will be a reality for any of the trio.
“Belinda is an isolated woman, she’s controlled by her husband. She has no friends.... She bleeds out tidbits of how she is hurting. In the end she is left with two options—the racist bigot, or the abusive husband. It’s not pretty.”
While the characters may be tortured, the process of bringing the play to life was anything but. Bell, who was last seen in Neptune’s season opener A Few Good Men, describes the atmosphere at rehearsal as a “big sleepover.” She says that it was wonderful to sit around a table and talk about the feelings of the characters. “It was a breath of fresh air to be working with such a small cast. It was very intimate.”
Cloran is an award-winning director known for his collaborative style of creation. He says, proudly, “I believe in actors. My job is to create the context for them to do their best work in.”
Rather than emphasizing the politics of the play, he asked his actors to concentrate on the relationships. “It’s really a boy-sees-girl, boy-wants-girl, boy-does-everything-in- his-power-to-get-the-girl kind of play. The politics of it spring from that.”
Cloran calls the play “an actor’s and director’s dream” and says he was thrilled when Neptune’s artistic director, Ron Ulrich, contacted him about taking on the job. “I was excited by the challenge,” he says. He hopes that the audience will be left with questions.
“If people have trouble deciding what they believe, if they are debating as they leave the theatre, we’ll have done our job.”
This is how it goes, until November 26 at Neptune Studio, 1593 Argyle, $15-$25, 429-7070, www.tickets.neptune.com