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Sexual Power in the Jim Crow South

Provocative student-written play touches a chord, misses acChance

By Erik Beach, Crimson Staff Writer

Frankie J. Petrosino’s buck is subtitled “a new play about love, race, and the price of sex.” While the play hammers home the issue of race, some of the more interesting questions it raises regarding gender and sexuality are picked up but never sufficiently addressed, let alone resolved.

Set in Sunflower County, Mississippi, buck’s storyline emphasizes the similarity between the lives of blacks in slavery in the 19th century and as sharecroppers in the 20th century. The narrative is framed by the ghost of the black sharecropper Lincoln Washington (Fred Smith), recounting his own life and death on the cotton plantation of William Brett (Stephen Smith). Brett, frustrated by his lack of success in the bedroom, strongarms Lincoln into the first act of what is to become a litany of sex scenes: “warming up” his wife (Abby Fee) while Brett looks on and then finishes what Lincoln has begun.

Brett happens upon the idea of hiring out Lincoln to other white men for the same purpose, and everything goes according to plan until Lincoln re-encounters Amanda, the first white woman he slept with, now the wife of Robert Aniston.

With Amanda, Lincoln is finally allowed to finish without a white man taking his place, but her husband then bursts in on them and accuses Lincoln of rape, leading to his eventual lynching. Complicating the storyline is the character of Jane McNeil (Stephanie Dorvil), a black sharecropper who suddenly appears on Brett’s plantation and turns out to be his daughter, a fact she springs on him as he tries to seduce her. Refusing to hide her secret, Jane incites Brett to strangle her, a murder he then pins on Lincoln after he is accused of rape.

Though buck’s storyline is rich in plotting, it lacks substantial character development. The characters’ true emotions are only conveyed through the narrator, Lincoln, which is problematic because he does not and cannot speak for all the characters. One example of this problem is when Brett believes that he is satisfying both Lincoln’s and his wife’s greatest desires by having them sleep together. While Lincoln as narrator tells us afterwards that this was not the case, Mrs. Brett has no such opportunity. In fact, Lincoln’s voice excludes the perspective of all the female characters, and their only direct commentary comes when Jane sings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to the dangling noose at the very end of the play.

Although any dramatic production cannot convey onstage every event related to its characters or plotting, buck misguidedly approaches this limitation by only showing the most highly charged scenes, recounting the rest via narration. This approach runs into difficulty when many of the same types of scenes are presented, such as multiple iterations of Lincoln in the bedroom with the white woman and the white “master.”

The play’s set points towards this presentation of characters as more archetypical, as the set itself is clearly allegorical. On the left side of the stage is the field, with a black tree standing against a black background interrupted only by wisps of white cotton, while on the right is the bedroom, drowned in a pure, virginal white countered by the black bed frame.

Within these settings, the multiple characters portrayed by Smith and Fee blend into one another, which is not due to a shortcoming on the part of the cast, but rather to the fact that all of their characters respond to the situations in basically the same manner, despite superficial differences. These responses are governed by a code in which what is permissible in the dark shadows of the bedroom under the cover of night, and what can be exposed in the bright light of day, is divided as sharply as the play’s set.

However, this strict, formal observance of a code between the accepted interaction between blacks and whites becomes almost indistinct when it comes to relations of gender depicted in the play.

While everyone recognizes the existence of a code between blacks and whites, few characters seem conscious of a similar code between men and women. The male dominates the female in buck, whether it be Brett silencing Jane’s voice of resistance, Lincoln having sex with Jane as a mere bodily stand-in for the white women, or Robert Aniston denying his wife Amanda’s claim that her sex with Lincoln was consensual.

The racial connection is clear: one can discern the same disregard in the way Brett treats Lincoln and Jane; but a clear connection between the male treatment of both white women and women of color is conspicuously absent.

buck is a frank and serious attempt to bring to the forefront issues which should be engaged in a theatrical setting. It is unfortunate that the piece is ultimately blemished by the irony that, in this portrait of the Jim Crow South, while the lack of female perspective is suggested as problematic, the play’s structure does not provide an adequate forum for such a perspective to be communicated.

theater

buck

Written, Produced and Directed by Frankie J. Petrosino ’02

Adams Pool Theater

April 4-6

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