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‘Separate and Equal,’ a new play about race and basketball in Jim Crow Alabama, trips over its subject matter

Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and University of Alabama jointly produced the play

What happens when six teens, three white, and three black, set aside their differences in the Jim Crow South for the sake of a little basketball?

That’s the central question of Separate and Equal, a new play at New York City’s 59E59 Theaters that was produced by the University of Alabama and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum.

Written and directed by Seth Panitch, Separate and Equal attempts to deconstruct the influences that form a web of racism in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1951. Panitch does so through a 3-on-3 basketball game that takes place on a public, but segregated basketball court. Black people are allowed to use the court on Sunday. But their presence any other day will result in imprisonment by the county’s violent and imperious police Lt. Connor (Ted Barton). The play draws inspiration from testimonials given to the Oral History Project at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The action begins with three black friends, Calvin (Adrian Baidoo), Emmett (James Holloway), and Nathan (Edwin Brown III) playing among themselves before Connor and his partner, Lt. Dixx, shoo them away. They don’t get far before a trio of white friends, Jeff (Steven Bond Jr.), Edgar (Ross Birdsong), and Wesley (Dylan Guy Davis), stroll up. What begins as two separate half-court games eventually evolves into a full-court press.

Separate and Equal is stuffed with memories of racialized violence, including rape, sadistic police brutality, a game of the dozens between black and white that trots out slurs such as “jigaboo” and “cracker,” the horrible mistreatment of a black Korean war veteran, a lynching, and the unwritten strictures that demand that black men answer to “Boy” while addressing their white counterparts as Mister.

But at just 85 minutes, the production doesn’t offer enough time for the development of the six main characters. It also doesn’t allow the audience the opportunity to process what’s happening in front of them: One moment they’re witnessing a flashback to a pivotal incident, and the next, they’re back to watching the young men either play basketball or argue about it. The drive-by treatment turns the violence into a parade of the Greatest Hits of Southern Racism, leaving them as little more than predictable tropes.

Some of the character names evoke the memories of Alabama’s past: Connor (as in Bull), Finch (as in Atticus) and Emmett (as in Till). But the effect is unnecessary sentimentality, rather than added depth, as though the audience needs to be beaten over the head with a nightstick to be reminded that this is a play about racism.

Worse, two of the black characters, Nathan and Emmett, are the most underwritten. Panitch provides little, if any, justification for Emmett’s bitter resentment toward “the white man’s numbers,” the phrase he spits out when he comes across Calvin’s algebra book. Nor is there an explanation for Nathan and Emmett’s decision to rib Calvin for being a “college boy.” The lack of clarity ends up feeding a stereotype that black people are anti-intellectual and that an interest in learning is synonymous with whiteness.

Meanwhile, Wesley, Edgar, and Jeff can be summed up with a sentence apiece. Jeff is the best basketball player of the three, but also the most racist. Edgar’s a mama’s boy with a half-brother he doesn’t acknowledge, though the whole town seems to know about it. And Wesley resents his father for being an upstanding, if drunken, civil rights attorney.

Staged in 59E59’s Theater B, the audience is seated on opposite sides of the room as if to mimic the crowd at a basketball game. The intimacy of the space does offer one clear advantage: It communicates how closely black and white people coexisted in areas of the South, and how much division and misery can be exacted despite it.

Another bright spot is Lawrence M. Jackson’s balletic game choreography. Because the men are acting out a basketball game, complete with passes, screens, and fouls, but without a ball, their movements become a compelling hybrid of sport and dance, like an Ernie Barnes painting come to life.

It’s the choreography that draws you into the story as Separate and Equal bounces between melodrama and tonally inconsistent frat boy humor (there are quite a few laughs at the expense of Lt. Dixx), but it’s hardly enough.

That’s too bad, especially considering that Jefferson County is still the modern-day epicenter of entrenched racism, from its still-segregated schools to its apparent tolerance of open bigotry from public servants.

Liner Notes

Separate and Equal runs at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan through Sept. 30.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.