Failing Grade: ‘Transfers’ West Coast premiere at Crowded Fire

Transfers west coast premiere at Crowded Fire - programme

“I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me. That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.”
– Sonia Sotomayor, First Latinx Justice of the US Supreme Court, My Beloved World (2013)

Of all the social programs despised by White-American conservatives, few receive as much disdain as Affirmative Action. Truth be told, it’s almost as hated amongst White-American liberals as much as conservatives. We’re all taught to believe that our achievements should be based solely on our utilized skills rather than the variables of race, sex, gender, social standing, or religion – to name but a few. In a perfect world, that would be the case.

But this is not a perfect world. Affirmative Action is a small-but-crucial step in attempting to level the playing field. When you’re the member of an exclusive country club, you tend to shirk at the idea of new membership you didn’t personally approve.

For people of color like myself, White America will always hold Affirmative Action over our heads like the asterisk next to stats of a Hall of Fame athlete. Liberal or conservative, the prominent line of thought is that someone White must have climbed their way to the top, whereas someone PoC must have just taken the elevator. This bullshit idea is applied to everyone, from Black police chiefs to the first Black president of the United States. It’s the ultimate gaslight: tell marginalized people that they might not deserve to be there, then maybe they’ll go away.

And like all American necessities, education is treated more as a privilege for the rich rather than the right of every citizen. As I type this, I recall reading just this morning about how a network of rich White parents (including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin) outright cheated the admissions programs of several high profile schools in order to get their kids in. In other words: these rich White people actually did for their rich White kids the very thing they’ve always falsely claimed Affirmative Action does for marginalized people. The hypocrisy would be funny if it weren’t so goddamn infuriating.

But that very false narrative of Affirmative Action as a minority’s jet pack to the top of the hill is why we need more stories told from the perspective of the folks who use those programs. The folks who still have to do twice as good to get half as far. The folks who could very well be nowhere without social programs to get them, at the very least, somewhere. Both the United States and the world need stories told from the bottom-up of society.

Transfers is not that fucking story. It’s a poorly-written diatribe that winds up trying to confirm the very stereotypes we need to dismantle.

Transfers west coast premiere at Crowded Fire - set

Set by Kate Boyd. Photo by Me.

Clarence Matthews and Christofer Rodriguez are both good at what they do. They’re more than good, they’re exceptional – Clarence in scholastics, Christopher in wrestling. Tomorrow, they’ll put what they’ve learned to the test as they both vie for admission to one of the most prestigious Ivy League universities in the country.

But Clarence and Christofer don’t come from the same silver spoon background as their would-be classmates. These two colored boys – Clarence is Black, Christofer is Latino – are from that part of the Bronx people are advised to avoid. So, with their achievements working for them, but their backgrounds working against them, the question has to be asked: do they deserve to be there at all?

The year 2019 is still relatively young, but this is the worst production I’ve seen thus far – by a substantially wide margin. The best way I could describe Lucy Thurber’s script would be “unintentional parody”. Think of it this way: if a satirical conservative playwright wanted to lampoon liberal “message” plays, this is what they’d come up with. One of the best shows I saw last year was Crowded Fire’s fantastic production of Two Mile Hollow. This play is what Two Mile Hollow would be if the farcical first act were played completely straight.

Thurber’s characters aren’t people, they’re plot points. None of them have personalities so much as they have the ability to recite events that have happened to them. What’s more, Thurber likes to tell rather than show. Christofer is an unapologetic misogynist, homophobe, and anti-social asshole. Yet, we’re supposed to sympathize with him because Clarence says he has a heart of gold. That isn’t character development, that’s a Family Guy cutaway. To be fair, Thurber reveals everyone but Clarence to be an asshole. Aren’t you so glad to spend nearly two hours with such delightful folks?

To top it all off, Thurber has a tin ear for dialogue that may be most apparent whenever the characters go on long rants. When David, the boys’ interview coach, goes to bat for one of them in the shows climax, you can almost hear the tiny violins playing along with his overwrought speech. And whenever Christofer says, well, anything, you get the feeling that Thurber’s only experience in hearing “ghetto talk” was watching Gary Oldman’s performance in True Romance. This isn’t a play seeking understanding, it’s a straw-man argument against the very thing it supposedly supports.

Having gotten through all that, I actually do have nice things to say about the show. Unfortunately, they won’t be about the performances. I don’t think I can go through them individually without sounding overly mean, so I’ll just say that they all struck the wrong notes. None is more than a series of idiosyncrasies and a few flat line deliveries. One of the adults is so off that it sounds like a criminal trying to lure in a victim. In all fairness, they had nothing to work with based on the text alone. Still, none of them was able to put any heart into these cardboard caricatures.

On the plus side, the tech side of the show is fantastic. When we first see Kate Boyd’s set, it’s simply a burgundy bed in a void, with a series of papers “floating” on the upstage wall. Before the play is done, the bed transforms into a posh university office shelf and two hidden banners fall from the roof, bearing the school’s coat of arms. It makes for wonderful visuals, accentuated by Marykerin Naughton’s props (a bust of Beethoven to one side, a tiny globe on the other). Both they and tech director Becket Finn have much to be proud of. Madeline Oldham’s sounds are really subtle, but when you do notice them (or, in the case of the ringing phones, they’re more obvious), you can appreciate that subtlety. So too do Chris Lundahl’s light slowly shift from full to spot at the perfect moments, leaving the floating papers underlit as the university transition takes place.

All the above was coordinated under the guidance of production manager Stephanie Alyson Henderson, with whom I’ve worked before. Were this show merely a pageant for the excellent artisans and technicians at Crowded Fire’s disposal, I would praise it to the high heavens.

Sadly, that isn’t the case. Transfers feels as if someone went to the darkest part of my mind and put a play based on my worst fears of what happens when White people tell stories about people of color. The subject matter is one that needs to be addressed now more than ever. But not like this.

Definitely not like this.

GRADE:                                                                                D

Transfers is scheduled to run until the 23rd of March at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 1 hr. 45 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Categories: Theatre

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