Augustana College's Wrestling with Angels & Demons approaches race, ethnicity, and racism from a personal perspective, as six people share their experiences - from first arriving at college to returning to one's homeland - with much humor and grace and very little anger. It's effective at addressing its issues in a nonconfrontational way, thoughtful, and - while dealing with a touchy subject - also quite enjoyable.
Written by the cast members under the direction of Theatre Arts Assistant Professor Scott Irelan, who conceived the project, Wrestling with Angels & Demons focuses, its program says, on race, religion, gender, and democracy, specifically on people outside of the majority within those areas. But race and ethnicity are the primary topics. In monologues by students dramatizing their own stories, speakers make clear how their upbringing or heritage shaped them. Images from their childhoods and videos of political and religious speeches are projected on a screen at the rear of the stage, adding visual context.
The play is most successful in personalizing issues of race and ethnicity. David Etheridge (The Gentleman with Hopes to Change the World), who first describes his upbringing in a predominantly black neighborhood, shares a story of walking to a party at his predominantly white, Lutheran college and hearing someone shout, "White power." Speaking with a meek, calm disposition, it's obvious Etheridge felt threatened and unsafe and, as a result, decided not to enter the party he was so excited to attend. It moved me to sadness to hear a firsthand account of how a phrase seemingly yelled in jest can so easily wound someone.
Rachel Stearns (Lady in a Bubble), who is part black and part Native American, talks about people's reactions when they discover that her adopted parents are white. Stearns doesn't take what others think about her mixed family to heart, but she resents that people think she should divulge her parents' race at first introduction. As she says, "You don't say, 'Hi. I'm Asian and my parents are, too."
While those stories provide examples of casual racism, other monologues dig deeper into racial identity. Vicki Owoo-Battlet (Lady of Faith) tells of returning to her family's homeland of Ghana, Africa, where the residents look at and listen to her with wonder. With blog posts filled with pictures of her trip projected on the screen, Owoo-Battlet describes being too "white" for Ghana - where they call her "obruni," which translates to something like "spoiled white European" - but too "black" for America. Owoo-Battlet shares her experience with a radiant smile, making it approachable, a friendly reminder that racial issues aren't always cut-and-dried - or black-and-white as they're thought of in America.
Jeremy Hoffman (Man of All Trades) is the only cast member to touch on democracy, though most of his story involves his own disgust at racial epithets spoken by his family. Being a fan of the musical style himself, Hoffman compares the federal government to jazz, with each of the three branches the melody, harmony, or bass line. While they serve specific purposes individually, together they make an effective whole; in this thoughtful though simple metaphor, they make good music.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Wrestling with Angels & Demons is also quite amusing, somewhat because of the matter-of-fact, this-is-my-experience, do-with-it-as-you-will presentation.
Mostly, though, it's entertaining because of its performers. Macy Marie Hernandez (Girl Standing Five Feet Tall) shares what the Filipino Christmas tradition means to her, speaking with bright eyes as she tells of food and family gatherings - how presents are not opened until midnight on Christmas, with the children eager to get their turn. If it's somebody else's turn, the child eats, Hernandez said, eliciting loud laughter from the audience.
I, however, was most delighted by the way Siara Cooper (Lovely Rock-n-Roll Lady) tells her story. She describes getting to know her new roommates by phone, only to see them surprised that she's black when they first see her. She incorporates an uppity, WASP-ish tone in her voice and stance, mimicking her roommates' parents as they tell her that she sounded so "white" on the phone. Her impression of the women is hilarious, as is her story.
For tickets and information, call (309)794-7306 or visit Augustana.edu/theatre.