Laughs, Lessons and Race
Student brings hysterical, enlightening play to campus
Published: Friday, April 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 12:04
As Mayer Theatre’s house lights dimmed and the nearly 600 people in the audience quieted, three men — a black man, a Latino man and an Asian man — emerged from behind the checkered walls spanning the stage.
Their snaps echoed across the auditorium, and they began to chant, transforming three racial slurs into a pulsing song that had the audience roaring with laughter.
So began N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK, the three-man show that combines theatre, comedy, slam poetry, hip hop and personal anecdotes to address issues of race, stereotypes and diversity.
“The fact that it is a different way to discuss these things, I think there’s a draw in that,” said Gracelyn Bateman, a senior and the lead organizer for N*W*C*’s performance on the Santa Clara campus. “It’s not a run-of-the-mill, extra-credit session; it’s a very popular play that’s been performed in over 40 states and played for a long time.”
N*W*C*, co-written by Liesel Reinhart, Steven T. Seagle and three former UCLA students Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal and Miles Gregley, performed to a full house on Tuesday night.
According to Bateman, the show quickly captured student interest. After tabling in Benson on Monday, Bateman and other campus organizers distributed over 700 free tickets for Tuesday’s performance. Butch Coyne, director of the Center of Performing Arts, even set up screens for viewing in the lobby.
“It is really inspiring to see so many people who are excited about this topic,” said Bateman.
N*W*C* came to Santa Clara after Bateman decided that the campus community needed to see the show. After watching the show twice — once in high school, once last year at a Southern California-based community college — she initiated the process to bring the play to campus.
She reached out to the Office of Multicultural Learning and 20 other campus organizations in order to raise $17,000 to market the show and provide free tickets to students, faculty and staff.
“I think it’s such an important discussion… and I would really hate for the price of a $10 show, or even a $5 show, to deter people from seeing this play,” she said.
Bateman even sent Rafael Agustin, one of the show’s writers and stars, a Facebook message to ask him to perform for the Santa Clara community.
“She’s a badass,” said Agustin about Bateman, in a Q&A session following Tuesday’s performance.
The play’s stars — Agustin, Dionysio Basco and Jackson McQueen — balanced the comedic sketches, such as the introductory chant and a “list game” in which each performer called out stereotypes of their respective ethnicities, with personal stories in order to create an environment conducive to exploring serious issues.
In one scene, McQueen integrates George Michael songs into his monologue in order to balance the tension that manifests as he realizes the connection between his personal identity and the word “nigger” while in a grade school classroom.
“That word… as far as Mr. Hall’s class was concerned… that was me,” McQueen said as the spotlight dimmed and the audience’s laughter diminished into a palpably hushed silence.
The actors effortlessly transitioned between high comedic energy and emotional gravitas. Their prowess was directly reflected in the audience’s reactions, as the audience laughed and sat in silence in the appropriate places.
Students felt that this balance helped to drive the important issues home.
“I think the humor made it more accessible; if it was just issues of race, people would be turned off,” said sophomore Lauren Shigemasa.
As the show drew to a close, the actors became self-aware and questioned the intersection between racial comedy and offensive humor.
“But it’s funny!” shouted McQueen, as his co-stars questioned why the racial stereotypes they joked about — and the audience laughed about — were so funny.
“But why?” said Basco. Neither McQueen nor Agustin could respond.
As the show came to a close, the three men reprised their introductory chant and retreated behind the checkered walls. As the words “nigger,” “wetback” and “chink” melded with the actors’ rhythmic snaps, the audience sat in silence.
The lights dimmed on the empty stage. The audience erupted in applause.
Contact Sarina Caragan at email@example.com or (408) 554-4852.