“Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids”: what do these three have in common? Perhaps that is what playwright Vincent Terrell Durham is asking in this new play at Stanford’s Nitery Theater.
Set in the Harlem brownstone inhabited by Peter Castle (Gabe Wieder ’20), an emergency room trauma surgeon, and his wife Molly (Emma Rothenberg ’19), an environmental activist, “Polar Bears” explores the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement by positioning it as an issue of environmental justice. Peter and Molly, white liberals in search of consciousness, are the adoptive parents of a 3-year-old African American boy named Jason. Their desire to give him a bright future is challenged when two black boys are killed by police officers in their neighborhood. This motivates Molly, who drives the action of the play (and her marriage), to befriend more of her black neighbors in the Harlem community, which she and her husband are simultaneously gentrifying. The entire play takes place on the evening of a cocktail party thrown by the Castles. It is something they do often; however, this time the guest list is all black, including members of Black Lives Matter, a black business owner, and the mother of a black boy recently slain by the NYPD.
“Polar Bears” is the second play in the line-up of Stanford Repertory Theater’s (SRT) 21st annual summer festival produced in partnership with Planet Earth Arts and the National Center for New Plays. It is fitting that “Polar Bears” makes its debut in the San Francisco Bay Area because the play wants to unsettle liberal white social activists.
The play begins with a moment of surrealism. Jaquan Wallace (Victor Ragsdale ’19), appears in a dreamlike scene accented by heavy, ethereal blue light (beautifully designed by Austin Critchlow ’20). Jaquan finds a flower on the stage and exits. His presence is not long enough to draw conclusions, but the emotional effect of loss and wonder is given. This opening scene is juxtaposed by Peter and Molly preparing for the cocktail party. It’s no wonder that Peter’s first line of dialogue is directed to Alexa, his digital assistant, and not to his wife. They cannot seem to communicate. Peter and Molly’s series of arguments begin when Peter learns about the all-black guest list. But Molly’s aim is just. Given the murder of the two black teens in the area, she is intent on finding a way to prevent Jason from being a victim of the same fate. Peter and Molly argue about sex (or the lack thereof), children (he wants one of his own), the costly renovation of their brownstone ($150 thousand), and whether or not Molly should go back to work.
The theme here is not privilege, but rather salvation and the quest for redemption. In their work, Peter and Molly literally save lives, Peter as a doctor and Molly as a protector of endangered species. Along the way, it seems they forgot about protecting the thing that keeps them going: their marriage. As Molly argues that she has to save the world because “humans really suck,” Peter hurls accusations like, “You collect causes.” Then Molly accuses Peter of “not listening” to his wife. As Peter reminds Molly throughout the play, the couple’s plan to have a child of their own never materialized. Now, they have lost their way and found themselves in a sexless marriage struggling to speak the same politically correct language. Rothenberg’s Molly is uncertain yet smart, timid yet tender. We get the sense that this Molly, like most overzealous liberals, is unsure of what justice looks like but is of the “shoot first, ask questions later” mindset. This gets her into some awkward situations as we see in her interactions throughout the night. These unquestioned shots leave her apologizing for living most of the night.
The awkward disfunction in the Castle marriage is symbolized in the disfunction of their home (designed by Dan Holland ’19). To preserve energy, they’ve installed motion sensor lights that don’t actually respond well to motion. They paid to install low flow toilets to save water, but since they don’t “flush yellow” the home smells of urine. And the 7-inch thick walls mean that they wouldn’t hear their son in his bedroom – even if he were choking. Like the home, the marriage isn’t working. Nevertheless, Peter is sympathetic, gentle and supportive. He’s a good husband, even if he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t describe black people as “smooth mocha.” He would rather have a heart-to-heart with his wife about sex and children than to step out with a hot young nurse from his busy hospital. At his core, Peter has a strong moral center that we trust to guide him and us to a resolution for this SoHa couple.
In this play about environmental justice and police violence, Durham layers in a critique of the black maid in modern culture and in Hollywood film history. But you won’t see a black maid on stage in “Polar Bears” because their maid, Claire – who gains the new title of African American household assistant – has been given the night off due to Molly’s fear that Claire’s presence would offend their black guests. Instead, Durham introduces the character of Shemeka Davis (Gianna Clark ’19), the owner of the Frederick Douglas bookstore. She is the first guest to arrive. Clark renders Davis with authenticity and an excellent range of emotion. She glides into the room in sheik attire (designed by Kaylyn Pugh ’19). In one moment she is the poised author and Harlem business owner. In the next, she transforms into the Alize-sipping, life of the party. In Davis, we have a moral compass through which we understand and interpret the events as they transpire down to the last moment of which she is the only witness.
Interestingly, though the Castles’ maid Claire has the night off, Davis does speak for the black maid. As the cocktail party gets underway, we learn that she is the author of an upcoming book on African American actresses in Hollywood. She says, “I got the idea after reading my great grandmother’s diaries. She was in a lot of movies from the early 40s right up until she died.” “Polar Bears” is a play whose script speaks to film history and the roles assigned to black women by critiquing America’s only vision of black women as servants who cater to the needs of white families. Referencing examples like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “Imitation of Life,” Durham writes a condemnation that culminates in a fiery indictment delivered with great force by Clark who brings the full weight of her character’s history to bear on this crumbling cocktail party, saying: “You got all the imagination in the world for grieving elephants, but you can’t imagine somebody who looks like me owning a bookstore. It never crossed your mind. It’s just what Rita was saying. Your limited view of us is what helped get a twelve year-old Black boy killed inside a park.”
The story gathers its steam with the arrival of Jaquan, a Black Lives Matter activist and his plus one, Tom Freeland (played with uninhibited fervor by Jake Harrison). Jaquan and Tom bring balance to the party. When Peter meets Jaquan’s plus one, he is relieved because he is white. But this lasts only for a moment. It takes Tom, the white militant Black Lives Matter advocate with no filter, no time at all to begin his tirade against the whitening of Harlem.
In Tom’s presence, “Polar Bears” descends into a narrative of gentrification replete with shaming Starbucks, Whole Foods and Chase Bank as symbols of white supremacy. Jaquan tries to put a lid on Tom, but this only goads him on as he retorts, “My thoughts are just as valid as yours. I’ve been with you since the first Black Lives Matter hashtag.” Jaquan, tired of Peter’s overstepping and lack of self-awareness, blurts out, “I get tired of you trying to grab a hold of something you’ll never understand.” Ragsdale and Harrison both deliver powerful, genuine performances. Playing opposite one another, they are vulnerable, weak and redeem one another. Their love draws us into this cozy little party. It’s obvious that their love is real and protects them both.
“Polar Bears” is unashamedly about men. But not just in policing. It relies on the very constant relationship between the black and white men. Jaquan is in love with a white man, Jason’s father is a white man, and Elijah, who was playing a cop when he was killed, wanted to be a white man. Going further, Durham has viewers observe the consequences of an absence and erasure of black men. For example, Shemeka shows up to the party expecting to meet a potential mate only to learn that he is gay; Jason, a young African American boy doesn’t have a black father, only Peter, a white doctor who calls black people “smooth mocha.” It’s almost as if Durham is considering what the world would be like without black men – do we need them?
As the room of five people sip cocktails and alternate between arguing and storytelling, they find common ground in The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” The music silences all the arguments, and they dance. But the music only lasts a short while before the grieving Rita Dupree (Sequoiah Hippolyte ’22) arrives. With her arrival, “Polar Bears” and the conflict it brings takes off until final arguments are presented on behalf of All Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter, with Rita having the final say when Hippolyte delivers a heart wrenching monologue of a mother’s loss. Hippolyte teleports us to a world of grief we never wanted to know, saying,
“Black boys have imaginations. Black boys pretend. What did those police officers see when they saw my son? Why didn’t they see a boy inside a park?”
Under the direction of SRT Artistic Director Rush Rehm, the characters in “Polar Bears” feel so familiar and steady that one doesn’t expect a tragic end filled with eruptions from characters in pain, driven by the need to speak their truth. Whether we agree with them or not, the play addresses deadly police violence against African American men in a unique way. It speaks truth to the reality that, when a cop pulls a trigger, all efforts to create change – the protests, marches and eloquent speeches – come to nothing. In that moment, Durham reminds us that the only thing that matters are the decisions made by two people who are both afraid and confused. And the tension at this fraught cocktail party heightens with the arrival of one more unexpected, uninvited guest.
Don’t miss “Polar Bears.” The play is running until July 28 at the Nitery Theater, 514 Lasuen Mall, Stanford, CA 9430. Remaining showtimes are Thursday and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., in addition to Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 p.m. There is plenty of free parking, and tickets are available at stanfordreptheater.com.
Michele Wells is a Ph.D. student in Theater & Performance Studies. She is advised by professor Rush Rehm.