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Student Disunion

As To Get to the Other Side reminds us again: no, we can't all just get along

Color Code: (from left) Latrisha Tillman and Missy House adjust to college life, and its new set of rules, in To Get to the Other Side.

By John Barry | Posted 9/3/2003

To Get to the Other Side

Carol Weinberg

The set for To Get to the Other Side looks like it was constructed by a furniture designer who never had to sit in one of his own chairs. Tall walkways surround a dormitory room that seems to be a harshly scaled masterpiece of interior design. Beds and chairs are carefully aligned, measured; the walls are painted with geometrically arranged squares of different colors in a Mondrian-like pattern. It it's all so severely drawn and aligned that it's unlivable.

This sets the tone perfectly. The late Carol Weinberg's play about race on campus, which has been staged several times since its composition in 1994, reminds us that even when colleges meticulously plan to integrate its students the conditions remain difficult. At the most basic level of the issue, black students are uncomfortable and sympathetic white students are often oblivious. To Get to the Other Side is powered by the conundrum that plagues both groups: If white students and students of color all use the same cafeteria, why don't they eat together?

Weinberg approaches this question with the eye of a sympathetic white observer. In the current production by Goucher College's Full Circle Theatre Company, Maggie (Missy House) is a young parentless white girl whose best friend, Melissa (Latrisha Tillman), is a solidly middle-class African-American. They head to college, where, despite the warnings of Melissa's mother Hattie (Teresa Ball), they decide to room together. The reasons for Hattie's uneasiness become clear immediately. There's something about college that makes it impossible for them to ignore their racial differences, and that takes a toll on their friendship.

The easy affinity that House and Tillman project at first adds intensity to their characters' slow separation from one another. House ably carries much of the show's weight on her shoulders, but does it with a self-deprecating assurance. Although she's the main character, she's willing to step graciously into the background as it becomes clear that the battles being fought are not necessarily hers. Tillman's transformation from a friend to a militant Black Student Union member is paced deliberately and subtly. And Ball, as Melissa's mother, exerts a subtle, powerful influence on the two characters.

The supporting characters provide a milieu for the story. Although the acting is energetic and enjoyable, they fall into the recognizable sociological slots: the oblivious jock, the southern belle, the veteran of the civil rights struggle, the annoyingly shrill student activist (in a wonderfully bilious performance by Stephanie Williams). The stridency is certainly believable--anyone who's been to college can vouch for that--but the battle lines are very predictably drawn, which makes some of the drama almost obligatory.

If you're a Baltimore theater addict, you may recall Athol Figard's My Children! My Africa! at the Everyman Theatre, which dealt with a similar racial breach between two teenage friends in South Africa. To Get to the Other Side is comparatively subdued, given the setting, but it becomes clear that the forces that tore apart a huge country are equally present on the idyllic American campus.

Hate-crime dramas are a flourishing genre, particularly among playwrights. They ratchet up tension, and certainly address important issues. The downside of this, however, is that the crudity of the crime can take the air out of the onstage drama. That doesn't quite happen in To Get to the Other Side, but there are moments when it seems we're being spoon-fed lessons in racial hatred, and there's even a point (be warned, parents of young children) when racial obscenities are howled through the speakers. At that point, the play takes on the aura of a campus symposium on racism--and, indeed, a discussion had been organized after the performance. That's fine, especially at the beginning of the school year. In the end, though, the play's the thing: a touching and painful journey through a world in which reality is sometimes too harsh for friendship to survive.

Dunnock Theatre, Meyerhoff Arts Center, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, (410) 337-6512. Tickets $12 general, $10 students and seniors.

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