Shelby, a 20-year-old African-American student who works as the resident adviser in a freshman dorm at a small New England college, doggedly insists that her generation is “post-racial.’’
But she learns otherwise over a tumultuous 12 hours in “Baltimore,’’ an incisive new drama by the prolific Kirsten Greenidge, one of Boston’s leading playwrights.
Presented by the Boston Center for American Performance and New Repertory Theatre with a cast consisting almost entirely of Boston University students, “Baltimore’’ is directed with vigor and clarity by Elaine Vaan Hogue, whose previous work with New Rep has included outstanding productions of “Imagining Madoff’’ and “The Kite Runner.’’
The characters in Greenidge’s plays often struggle to define themselves as individuals while grappling with social forces, including racism, that seek to constrain them. Her “Milk Like Sugar,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company, revolves around 16-year-old Annie, a black high school student who resists pressure from her friends to get pregnant as she starts to question the limiting assumptions of others, including her own mother, about what her life ought to be.
In “Baltimore,’’ Shelby (Desiré Hinkson) is certain that her generation is not a prisoner of America’s troubled racial history. Indeed, she goes so far to as to tell Dean Hernandez (Cliff Odle), the college’s first black dean: “My generation is going to evade history. . . . You’re asking us to answer old dead questions.’’
Those questions don’t seem either old or dead, however, when a tough-talking white student named Fiona (Lexi Jenne) creates a racist drawing on the door of a gentle black student named Alyssa (Alice Kabia). Facing intense pressure to demonstrate leadership, Shelby instead chooses to essentially hide elsewhere on campus. It’s a test of character, and for much of the play, Shelby is flunking, unwilling to confront a direct challenge to her worldview.
Meanwhile, tensions boil over among the freshmen. Fiona claims her drawing was “a joke,’’ adding: “People need to calm down. Obama got elected; that proves we are all OK.’’ The other students respond to the drawing and the issues it raises with fury, disbelief, bewilderment, questions about the college’s commitment to true diversity, and varying degrees of reflection and self-examination. As their stories and viewpoints pour out, director Vaan Hogue literalizes the idea of multiple perspectives by positioning actors in spots all around the performance space.
In addition to Fiona and Alyssa, the freshmen include Leigh (Jade Davis, excellent), a confident and assertive black student who is livid at Shelby for her inaction; Rachel (Linda Vanesa Perla Giron-Blanco), an outspoken Latina student; Bryant (Seth Hill), a black student who is dating Fiona, and whose qualms about her grow even as he tries to defend her; and Carson (Kalei Devilly), the white son of two mothers. Also caught up in the swirl of events is Grace (Ami Park), Shelby’s best friend, who is Asian-American.
At times the exchanges among these characters resemble dueling speeches more than dialogue. Even accounting for the academic environment, some of the set pieces are overly didactic. Yet there’s a compelling urgency running through “Baltimore,’’ and the play is another demonstration of Greenidge’s grasp of social nuance, along with her understanding of racial and ethnic experience and identity in all their complexity.
The BCAP-New Rep coproduction of “Baltimore’’ is part of a “rolling world premiere’’ of the play at several universities nationwide. “Baltimore’’ was commissioned by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium as part of an initiative to encourage new plays by female playwrights that include strong roles for young women.
In the diversity of its dramatis personae and in the issues that drive the play, “Baltimore’’ feels utterly contemporary. The college-age characters in Greenidge’s play and the students portraying them have come of age in the era of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray (all of whom are referenced in “Baltimore’’). “You don’t even have to look past the front page to get confused about what year it is,’’ Rachel observes.
“Baltimore’’ delivers a reminder that when it comes to race, in the words of Dean Hernandez, “We each meet each other with a certain history lapping at our insides.’’ Greenidge ultimately leaves us with an image that does not offer a tidy resolution to the thorny issues she raises in her fine play but that does suggest a generation having a necessary conversation with itself.
Play by Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. Presented by Boston Center for American Performance and New Repertory Theatre at BU Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, Boston. Through Feb. 28. Tickets $20-$30, 617-933-8600, www.bu.edu/cfa/bcap orwww.newrep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.