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By ERIC GRODE
Call a Spade is the name of a daring new four-character play by Shaleeha G'ntamobi, who has been called "our next Lorraine" (as in Hansberry) by no less than Lawrence James, the nation's leading black theatre director. "Shaleeha," however, is actually Danny Larsen, a 27-year-old gay white man who got the idea for the play when some black kids on the subway made fun of his shoes. The ruse works until the prestigious Humana Theater Festival decides to produce Call a Spade, forcing Danny to conjure a living, breathing Shaleeha out of thin air by hiring an actress to play, essentially, himself.
That's the story inside The Submission, which is an <i>actual</i> four-character play by Jeff Talbott that MCC Theater is producing at the Lucille Lortel.
The Submission's premiere also came about through an eyebrow-raising submission.
Talbott, 47, received the inaugural Laurents/Hatcher Award, which legendary writer-director Arthur Laurents named after himself and his late partner, Tom Hatcher. The award is arguably designed to force theatre companies to produce new works: The author gets $50,000 to spend as he or she chooses, while the sponsoring company gets twice that amount if it actually produces the winning script within 12 months. "He was a persnickety fellow, and he wanted what he wanted," Talbott says of the famously combative Laurents, who died in May. "He was dedicated to the idea that if a theatre wanted the money, they had to actually do it."
The two men worked together in 1999, when Talbott, who's also an actor, appeared in a revival of Laurents' play Home of the Brave. However, that was a nonfactor in terms of the award, which used a anonymous submission policy.
Such a policy would have saved Danny Larsen (played by Jonathan Groff) and his friends no end of trouble. The Submission explores with probing intelligence and a wicked sense of humor what happens when Emilie (Rutina Wesley), the actress that Danny hires, grapples with her own questions of representation and authenticity. It's no coincidence that the "our next Lorraine" comment takes place when Danny is outside of the rehearsal room, when everyone still assumes that a black woman wrote the play within the play.
"I think we can get caught up in the theatre community about who has the right to tell what story," says Talbott, who based some of the play's conflict on a heated argument he had with a black classmate when they were in graduate school. The characters in The Submission are grad-school age, which he says is intentional: "The late 20s are a very special time. You don't see the world as gray, and you always think you're right. I think Danny and Emilie have the same blind spot: They don't have any perspective."
Which is not to give Danny or Emilie a free pass for the fairly awful things they say to each other. "I think Danny raises some good questions that are worth talking about," Talbott says. "They're just not as answerable as he thinks they are---or as she thinks they are. I really tried to make them both about 50 percent wrong.
For his part, Talbott has few qualms about creating characters who aren't exactly like him. He recounts a conversation with the play's director, Walter Bobbie, on this very topic.
"Walter once told me that you shouldn't write what you know," he explains. "You should write what you imagine."
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).