With mixed-race couples popping up in TV commercials for wireless service and beer, it’s hard to argue that interracial dating is much of a hot-button topic anymore. No less a reliable barometer of the zeitgeist than Time magazine even declared interracial couplings one of 2004’s hot marketing trends. Given all that, you might expect S.H. Murakoshi’s “Slippery When Wet”– a play in which interracial dating is about as safe as a minefield — to come across as starchy or exaggerated. Happily, however, Murakoshi’s mordant humor and sharply defined characters leaven this otherwise relentless probing of American anxieties about race.
Murakoshi’s fine one-act is a great fit for Penumbra, a venerable St. Paul-based African-American company that once nurtured talents like August Wilson and Marion McClinton, but has struggled with financial problems in recent years. Penumbra’s forte lies in drama that deals candidly with race. The intimate, character-driven “Slippery When Wet” certainly plays to that strength.
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In form, “Slippery When Wet” is a meet-cute. Rakim (Desean Terry), a hip young African-American filmmaker, shows up for a date with Helen (Katrina Toshiko), a performance artist who tosses out — in one of many note-perfect evocations of clubby New York art-scene bonhomie — that she just finished a project with Ping Chong. Though they’re undeniably attracted to one another, both Rakim and Helen find themselves grappling with certain pervasive stereotypes.
When we first encounter Helen, for instance, we find her dressed as a geisha, muttering incantations of “the mysterious East” in the pidgin of a badly dubbed Shaw Brothers film. Rakim’s facade is less obviously artificial. But, as he explains later on, it’s often useful for a black man in America to put up a thuggish front.
That Rakim and Helen have internalized the basest racial stereotypes — of the predatory black man, for instance, or the demure Asian sex-doll — makes it impossible for them to connect except superficially.
Much of the play’s humor comes in asides addressed to the audience that act sort of like cartoon thought balloons. It’s to the credit of the actors that this never seems a mere comic contrivance. Rather, Rakim and Helen’s often outrageous outbursts are manifestations of their sexual energy. Even the awkward silence after an aborted kiss is charged with nervous possibility.
Though Murakoshi developed “Slippery When Wet” in the 1990s, she seems to have done some retouching for this production. There is, for instance, a short rant about the mendacity of Fox News, as well as a brief mention of a recent series of shootings in Wisconsin that inflamed racial tensions in the Midwest. If anything, the play’s insights seem even more relevant in a world in which cultural misunderstanding has become a matter of life and death.
Penumbra’s staging is simple, but typically uncluttered and elegant. Director Ching Valdes-Aran stages the action on a plain white diamond that looks suspiciously like a boxing ring. Indeed, more than once after a heated exchange, Rakim and Helen retreat to their respective corners like exhausted fighters.
In a literal depiction of the characters’ fractured identities, a large angled mirror hung behind the stage presents a reverse image of the actors. Slides projected onto the mirror provide occasional illustration to their dialogue. A speech about the submissive paradigm foisted on Asian women is, for instance, accompanied by ukiyo-e woodcuts of geishas. Later, faded family photographs illustrate Helen’s touching story about the wartime interment of her grandparents.
If “Slippery When Wet” has a weakness, it’s that, having set up a sexually charged, emotionally taut interplay between smart, confident Rakim and insecure Helen, Murakoshi pushes too hard for a dramatic catharsis. At the play’s climax, Rakim and Helen alternate between tender lovemaking and hurling angry, ugly racial epithets in the course of only a few minutes. Didn’t these two just meet?
Then again, this dramatic eruption only rings false because the rest of the play rings so true, and because the actors work so hard to create rich, multilayered characters. Murakoshi is wise enough to know that such deep racial wounds aren’t healed in a night. As her play intelligently acknowledges, the reality behind those TV-commercial images of happy multiracial America is slipperier than that.