Boston College students are unfortunately overly familiar with a harsh reality: we do not live in a post-racial society, and we're nowhere close to getting there. Baltimore, performed as a stage reading by ten Boston College community members Monday night, found a sympathetic audience with students and faculty tired of enduring hate crimes and racist incidents semester after semester.
This performance, directed by Prof. Luke Jorgensen, was the first event in the Critical Conversation Series, created by the FACES Council and the Boston College Theatre Department to promote critical conversations on campus.
Baltimore did just that. Drawing an engaged audience, the play raised issues of race and racism on college campuses and was followed by a discussion of those issues led by members of FACES. FACES Council is “an anti-racist organization committed to educating the BC community on issues of race, identity, systems of power and privilege,” and in the wake of the recent anti-Black racist incident at Boston College, the work of organizations like FACES is crucial on this campus.
Baltimore is set at an unnamed university, with only nine characters carrying a complicated and emotionally fraught narrative. The play opens with Shelby, a junior, a Resident Advisor, a reporter for the school newspaper, and a Black woman, interviewing a newly appointed dean at the university. Dean Hernandez is a Black and Latinx man who has long researched race, participated in the Black Panther movement, and who gave a convocation speech concerning race with which Shelby did not agree.
Shelby didn’t like to talk about, think about, or acknowledge race—she preferred to imagine that she lived in a post-racial society, and that her race wouldn’t influence her life the way it has historically influenced people of color.
As the play unfolds, we discover that a hate crime has taken place in the residence hall in which Shelby is the RA. A white student, Fiona, has painted a racist caricature on the door of Alyssa, a Black student on her floor. Alyssa, the victim, does not speak for the majority of the play and hides while the other freshmen in that hall begin to deal with the fallout of the incident. As tension between them rises, their RA Shelby ignores the situation; she does not want to deal with racial tensions, and as we discover, this is in part due to a painful personal history.
The importance of personal history is one of the lessons of the play. After watching the many conflicts that arise from this incident, and seeing each character deal with the situation in their own imperfect way, we discover that each character has their own painful, specific, and valid personal history relating to issues of identity. Each of them has their own baggage coming into a difficult situation, and what wins out, in the end, is not who can yell the loudest, or who is the most "woke." What’s important in these situations is genuinely listening to one another, and genuinely seeing each other for what we are. That includes seeing race; we are not colorblind.
Many other issues pertaining to race are brought up in this rich play. Two Black characters, Leigh and Bryant, find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Bryant defends Fiona, the perpetrator of the hate crime, at first because he believes she is joking but then because he is tired of bearing the pain of racial conflict. Leigh criticizes him for it, saying he should be on the victim's side, and raises the issue of presenting a united front.
Within an oppressed group, do individuals have the right to defect? If so, won’t they weaken the entire group’s already tenuous standing? If not, then isn’t presenting a united front yet another symptom of their oppression?
The open conversation after the play raised many of these issues, as well as that of white privilege. One character, Carson, said he did not see color and preferred to stay out of political conversations and conflicts. In fact, the ability to stay out of issues like racism and out of political conversations is part of white privilege; people of color, especially women, do not have the luxury to "stay out of it," as their lives and rights are always at stake.
Ultimately, this complicated narrative has an important lesson for its audience, and for the student body of Boston College in the wake of December’s anti-Black racist incident. This lesson is in a quote from the character Dean Hernandez: "We each meet each other with a certain history lapping at our insides.”
Whether that history is one of being the oppressor or of having been oppressed, we are all influenced by the ripples of our own history and the history of our country, and this history is not something we can ignore. We must drag history out into the open, and really see it; and hopefully, in really seeing ourselves, we can really see one another, and plant the seeds of healing and growth.