Review by Matt Smith
“We need to learn from the past, so we don’t make the same mistakes.”
Such is the overarching idea behind The Bigot, the provocative and politically-charged new play now shaking up the Theatre at St. Clements written by Gabi and Eva Mor and directed by Michael Susko.
While on the surface, it may seem that this line is spoken in reference to pivotal historical events — as part, in fact, of a foolish attempt to shift the titular bigot’s perspective on certain viewpoints — with all the layers that make up this prevalent, multi-faceted piece, ranging from familial relationships to marriage to life vs. death, there’s no question the quotation extends to themes beyond just history, seeping its way into the greater scope of the narrative.
The production, which began its life at Manhattan Repertory Theatre in June 2017 in response to the frustration and sadness that stemmed from the 2016 election, follows Jim (a spectacular Stephen Payne), the proud and ruthless bigot of the title, whose life is upended when his son and caretaker, Seth (a riveting Dana Watkins), befriends Paula and Aysha (equally captivating Jaimi Paige and Faiven Feshazion), the pair of affectionate lesbians next door. When Seth calls on the ladies to check in on his ailing pop while he’s gone, Sam’s patience is stretched even further… but it all comes to a head when his critical health condition takes a turn for the worse… and he refuses to accept that the people he’s ostracized his entire life may, in fact, be the only ones who can save him. As tensions rise, secrets are revealed, bonds are solidified, and beliefs are tested as they’ve never been before.
Indeed, on paper (and admittedly, throughout the majority of the production) the play seems to center around an egregiously unyielding and unshakable man, whose fire is fueled by the reaction to the current state of our political climate. But in retrospect, it’s so much more: it’s about the science of human connection… an exploration of the influence humans can have on one another.
As the play unfolds and we get to know these characters and their backgrounds, we, as an audience, come to realize, they are, in their own individual ways, just as prejudice as he is: Paula’s inability to connect with Jim, Aysha’s flat-out refusal to fulfill Seth’s request, Seth’s refusal to associate with her father, and even, despite her insistence that she does love Paula, Aysha’s refusal to get married, are all examples — albeit, admittedly not expressed in the same extreme manner that Jim expresses his views — are all examples of prejudice in one way or another.
Which is to say, in its brutal, unflinching and bluntly honest way, the play presents the unsettling idea that, while Jim may reign supreme as the ultimate “equal opportunity” bigot, there’s a little bit of Jim in all of us.
Put into those terms — aided by the work of the actors, whose phenomenally fresh and dynamic performances, which, based on the cartoonish, sitcom-y way in which they are written could have easily been one-note, help to epitomize these characters as real people — the concept is sure to make you feel uncomfortable… but it should. That’s exactly the point. This is the world we live in. There are Jims that exist today who “use their anger at the world to justify [their] hatred of everyone,” attempting to project their bigoted views onto others in the process. And as the past — and the writing — has shown us, it may be tedious, strenuous, exhausting and perhaps detrimental to get someone to change when they don’t want to change (“You do know what’s it’s called when you do the same thing over and over and expect different results?” Aysha even quips, to that point). But we need to, as Seth instructs, “learn from the past” and continue to challenge these folks and keep the fight alive — however strenuous, exhausting or tedious it may be — so that “we don’t make the same mistakes” as our ancestors, possibly obliterating essential relationships with family and friends.
However, that fight, and the universal concurrent struggle to persist, is made easier when we understand that we’re also all the same in that respect. We all have our grudges, our disappointments, our vices, and our opinions. But we also “all have fears. We all have feelings. We all have dreams. We all get sick, and we all need help.” In short, as Paula explains during her umpteenth attempt to sway Jim, “We’re all just human”… and in allowing us to gradually come to that conclusion as we piece together all the details of the plot throughout the evening, that’s wherein the writers truly succeed.
This idea is especially exemplified through the fact that as Seth is attempting to turn Jim, Paula is attempting to turn Aysha. Everything that Seth says to his close-minded curmudgeonly father about respecting and accepting people of different religions echoes what Paula says in nudging her girlfriend toward respecting and helping out Jim.
Just as Jim is unwavering in his views, so is Aysha, her opposition, stemming from a history of victimization based on her skin color, rendering her equally “sad, lonely, and weak,” and just as equally in need of help as Jim is. So, it’s incredibly poignant that Aysha is ultimately the one to change Jim, solidifying the idea that we’re all united in our humanity, each possessing the power to instill different perspectives on one another. And by opening yourself up and considering another point of view on even the tiniest of issues, you could potentially change — and save — the trajectory of your entire life.
And in considering the outcome, maybe Aysha saved Jim in more ways than just one. Maybe in saving him, she came to the realization that, ultimately, she was saved, too. And if so, with all things considered within this semi-fictional universe, there might just be hope for the rest of us.
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
The Bigot, written by Gabi and Eva Mor and directed by Michael Susko, plays the Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 W. 46th Street) through June 9th. For tickets and/or more information, visit www.thebigotplay.com.