defunkt tackles race, homophobia, and theatre itself in ‘The Submission’

"[The Submission] is fiercely funny and deadly serious at the same time," says director Andrew Klaus of his new production with defunkt theatre. Photo by Rosemary Ragusa
“[The Submission] is fiercely funny and deadly serious at the same time,” says director Andrew Klaus of his new production with defunkt theatre. Photo by Rosemary Ragusa
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly

Acclaimed local theatre group defunkt presents the Portland premiere of “The Submission,” a play that explores the intersection of art, prejudice, and hypocrisy.

Written by Jeff Talbott, “The Submission” tells the story of Danny Larsen (played by Matthew Kern), a struggling white gay playwright who pens a script about an African American family and their efforts to escape inner-city poverty. To increase its chances of getting produced, he submits the play to a prestigious theater festival under the pseudonym of “Shaleeha G’ntamobi.” When it is accepted, he hires Emily (Andrea White), an African American actress, to assume the role of his invented pen name. What follows is a searing, no-holds-barred exploration of racism, homophobia, sexism, affirmative action, and hypocrisy in modern America.

After its New York premiere in 2011, theatre fans and critics alike raved about the surprisingly upbeat and thought-provoking production. Industry publication Backstage described “The Submission” as “fearless, whip-smart, and hyperarticulate,” noting that “Talbott’s incendiary political comedy-drama asks hard questions about our supposedly post-racial world.” New York productions of the play won such notable accolades as the 2011 Laurents/Hatcher award for Best New Play, as well as the 2012 New York Outer Critics Circle Award.

“So many things grabbed me with this script,” director Andrew Klaus says. “It’s fiercely funny and deadly serious at the same time. The issues of racism, misogyny, and homophobia were clear, but also the questions of authorship and ownership over one’s story, and the debate over cultural representational and appropriation. All those things are important to me not only as a director but just in life as a human being.”

“I think it’s paramount to look at comparative suffering and how minorities are pitted against one another in our society,” he says, “and how that in-fighting holds us all hostages. As a gay biracial Jew, I have on more than a few occasions felt the sting of hate speech and ignorance. While this is awful to experience, I feel that it is what one does with those experiences that ultimately matters the most.”

To further the social justice dimension of the play, defunkt has partnered with the August Wilson Red Door Project, a local nonprofit that uses the arts as a catalyst for creating a lasting, positive change in the racial ecology of Portland. After the performance on Oct. 26, defunkt will host a post-show talkback facilitated by the August Wilson Red Door Project so that the cast and audience can further explore the themes raised by the production as a means of educating and elevating individuals and the community at large.

While Klaus has worked on numerous productions with defunkt, this is his first time directing with the company and within the black box of Back Door Theatre — but the constraints of the space can make for an electrifying theatrical experience.

“It’s really the perfect environment to stage a show like ‘The Submission,’” he says. “It’s intimate and confrontational. It’s a safe space to do dangerous things. I love the tangible closeness of it. It doesn’t allow for a disconnect between the audience and the performance. It’s a beautiful thing. I really love doing a piece of theater that in many ways is about theater itself and making sure that the theatrical stage craft of it isn’t hidden away. We are not attempting to be a movie on stage. This is a play, about, among other things, plays. Megan Wilkerson’s set is an abstraction of ideas that we think must have been swirling in the character Danny’s mind as he wrote his play-within-the-play. The sound design by Ron Mason Gassaway and Vanessa Pearl Janson’s beautiful lights augment the very now-ness of the story and I think the space is perfect for that kind of intensity.”

Ultimately, Klaus hopes that “The Submission” will send audiences home not just entertained, but also primed for some important discussions. “The show is entertaining and shocking in equal measures,” he says. “I think it asks a lot of hard uncomfortable questions that have no easy answers and I hope audiences take that way with them into their own lives and discuss it. The show is not here to lecture anyone … but it does ask you to sit with some big concepts and that prompts you to look at how you deal with issues in your own life.”

“The Submission” runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights through Nov. 16 at The Back Door Theatre (enter through the Common Grounds Coffee Shop at 4321 SE Hawthorne, Portland). Doors open at 7:15 p.m., show begins at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sunday night tickets are sliding scale $5-50, and Friday and Saturday night tickets priced at sliding scale $15-$25. For more information and to purchase tickets or season passes, visit defunktheatre.com.