Chicago Theatre Review
Gift’s ‘A Swell in the Ground’ a probing investigation of whiteness
A Swell in the Ground – Gift Theatre
The Gift Theatre has distinguished itself in recent years for staging brave, ambitious world-premiere plays from fresh, daring voices. From “Unseen,” to “Good Day for Otto,” to “Body + Blood,” to “The Royal Societies of Antartica” (one of the finest plays I’ve ever seen on a Chicago stage), The Gift and artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton have demonstrated an uncanny skill at staging new material, and that tradition continues with “A Swell in the Ground,” a new play from Janine Nabers.
Directed by Gift ensemble member Chika Ike, “A Swell in the Ground” is, on the surface, a time-hopping tale of romantic woes and failed relationships. Spanning from 2001 to 2018, the play follows the failed marriage of Olivia (a focused Sydney Charles) and Nate (an excellent Keith Neagle), and how they slowly drift into the respective arms of Abigail (Gift ensemble member Darci Nalepa) and Charles (the charismatic Andrew Muwonge). Fights, misunderstandings, failed gestures, outright ignorance – many of the elements in “Swell” are familiar, albeit marvelously written by Nabers and wonderfully directed from Ike. What sets it apart from other breakup/makeup plays is its exploration of race, namely the ignorance and cluelessness of whiteness.
The central relationship in “Swell,” between Olivia and Nate, is an interracial one, and following their divorce, both characters end up marrying people of their own race – Olivia, who is Black, re-marries with Charles, while Nate, who is white, settles down with Abigail. Those dimensions are clear, but what I appreciated most about “Swell” was how Nabers and Ike avoided the broad gestures and pontificating that so often characterize dramas about race (think of Paul Haggis’ overblown “Crash”). Rather than obvious signs of bigotry, whitesplaining of feelings, or most tiresome of all, Black characters who do nothing more than explain the Black experience to a show’s majority-white audience, Nabers and Ike instead give us a setting much more based in reality – actual people operating in a world defined not by bigotry, but widespread ignorance about race and its impact on every day life. There are many reasons that Olivia and Nate’s marriage fails, but in Nabers’ nuanced hands, we see how Nate – a character, for instance, who speaks of how Rusted Root changed his life, and who asks Charles if his blossoming friendship with Olivia is a “Black thing” – is thoroughly ill equipped for an interracial marriage and the challenges it entails.
The sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant write about how racism in America is “bred in the bone,” how it is less the outcome of bigotry than the product of structures and socialization. These are big, important topics, and I salute Nabers and the Gift Theatre team for their willingness to tackle it in such a nuanced, careful way.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Dec. 10 by The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-283-7071 or by going to www.thegifttheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.