By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The third entry in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s season using the Aubible platform was released in late December. This world premiere of Animals by Stacy Osei-Kuffour is an ear-opening, gut-wrenching and comedic examination of the pitfalls of today’s interracial dating experience and identity.
Directed by Obie Award winner Whitney White, Animals is set in contemporary New York (either before or after the current pandemic). In it Osei-Kuffour introduces us to two Black and White couples attending what on its face appears to be a harmless dinner party.
At the opening of the play, Henry (SAG Award nominee Jason Butler Harner) has just proposed to his Black girlfriend Lydia (Aja Naomi King), who uses her sexual wiles to keep him in check. But the proposal, which she accepts, could more properly be described as an ultimatum.
Lacking any real romantic overtones, it seems designed to deflect or, more properly, put off the arrival of Lydia’s longtime friend Jason (Emmy Award nominee William Jackson Harper), their guest for dinner. Jason, who now goes by the West African (Afkan) name of Yaw, which means “born on Thursday,” is a pretentious, womanizing NYU professor who prefers White women as his partners. He has his latest buxom girlfriend Coleen (SAG Award nominee Madeline Brewer) in tow.
It would seem that there is more to the triangle between Henry, Lydia and Yaw/Jason. In fact, the raison d’etre for the dinner is to recall the time 15 years ago when Jason and Lydia first met, much to Henry’s chagrin.
Animals might be described as a mashup of two classic plays – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? It is also a primer by Ossei-Kuffour on what not to say in the context of the modern interracial dating scene. The most noted difference is that in the latter play there is civility and tolerance that allows the two families to accept their differences. In Animals, there is a mean-spirited undercurrent of hubris and entitlement in both its Black and White shades.
The dynamic between the two Blacks – Lydia and Yaw/Jason – is, perhaps, the most interesting relationship explored by the playwright, who is herself Black. Lydia maintains the abiding hope the two will reconcile and eventually reunite. Henry, who has suspected there is more to their friendship, feels like an outsider, which explains the motivation behind his impromptu proposal.
Before the second couple’s arrival Henry tries to cancel the dinner and opts instead for a romantic evening at home. When he sees his arguments are not working, he blurts out “I don’t like him. Seriously, I don’t.”
“Since when?” Lydia inquires from another room and after hearing silence asks a second time.
“Since I found out he’s possessive over you,” Henry shouts back. He qualifies it by adding “In terms of your attention,” but it’s easy to glean he is jealous of the connection his fiancée has with this other man.
There are little signs that immediately show up in their demeanor towards each other as a couple in love. Instead of playful admonitions about not eating Ben and Jerry’s Double Fudge ice cream before dinner and spoiling his appetite, Lydia overreacts.
At first, she suggests he’s no longer as attractive as he once was, a blow to his male ego. “You used to be a stud,” she complains as he asks her to stop emasculating him.
He finally pleads: “People change.”
“Fine. Have the f**king snack. Choke on it. Die of diabetes. What the f**k do I care?” she snaps back.
Perhaps sensing her overkill, she reassures him: “It’ll be over in an hour.” But it is obvious she is determined to hold the dinner. “I’m celebrating,” she boasts.
Celebrating a friendship anniversary instead of celebrating their engagement? It all seems misguided and wrong.
Henry also finds Yaw’s name change as disingenuous, if not duplicitous. Lydia reminds him that he is simply “erasing the name the White man gave him and, in turn, renaming himself.”
He chokes on his ice cream when she then retorts: “You wouldn’t get it, baby. It’s a Black thing.”
Just before the doorbell announces the arrival of the second couple, Henry shares that all of his friends have urged him to leave her, that she’s no good for him.
Lydia’s reaction is for Henry to answer the door, while she attends to her last minute ironing so that she will look more presentable. With Yaw banging on the door, Henry decides to try to act on a romantic impulse. Lydia will have nothing to do with it, though.
The manipulative and conniving dance they all do in passive-aggressive fashion starts with a few ill-chosen phrases and inappropriate inquiries before it devolves into a free-for-all. Henry and Lydia have their moment alone, while Coleen and Henry steal off to the kitchen to pick wines for the meal.
Lydia confronts Yaw/Jason over his feelings for his latest conquest. She reveals their shared “gangsta” past and pushes for him to profess his love for her. Meanwhile, a frustrated Henry finds he has an uneasy attraction to Coleen.
They all retire to the dining table a few moments later, revealing the wines Coleen has insisted on picking are among the most expensive on hand at $300 a bottle. Lydia is unnerved as well by how well the two Whites have gotten on in such a short passage of time.
As if needing to make yet another misstep, Henry is so moved at the table by Lydia’s culinary skills that he chooses to extol the praises of Paula Deen, the disgraced doyenne of Southern cooking who was outed over social media for her inbred racism. Of course, as he sees it, Henry brings it up because he misses her down-home cooking, which he calls “the real deal.”
Everyone else at the table, though, sees it differently.
The parry and thrust of Osei-Kufour’s dialog is sharp and incisive. The characters she has chosen to present are all flawed in some fashion, but they kid themselves into believing they are somehow each more enlightened than the others at the dinner table.
As the wine is passed around, the night spins further out of control with disastrous consequences for each couple and well as to their own psyches. Eventually, the harsh words and accusations that fly lead to dinnerware being dashed to the floor and raw feelings being exposed.
We watch and listen raptly as the inevitable explosion occurs, guided with deliberate precision by the director, Whitney White. As Lydia, King plays her critical and manipulative role to absolute perfection, using sex as skillfully as a robber would employ a gun. As Henry, Harner is a simpering mass of manhood who cannot take a stand for himself and is browbeaten by Lydia. He is constantly saying and doing the wrong things, which might simply be a cry for help.
No one can be that “unwoke.” (But, of course, in this comedy, he is.)
As Yaw, Harper plays his role as both a narcissist and an opportunist to great effectiveness. He escapes from his checkered past as easily as a snake sheds his skin, but his inability to connect to any woman for longer than a six-month period is probably the best indicator that he is incapable of commitment. While he won’t admit it publicly, he does feel a strong sense of connection to Lydia, oftentimes referring to her as “Bug,” a pet name from their past.
As Coleen, Brewer brings insight and wisdom into her character, even when her own reputation is disparaged by others at the dining table. In many ways she is the most innocent of the characters presented with no preconceived notions about the others. There is a lot more to her than just an attractive co-ed, though. She holds herself as a self-confident woman who knows what she wants and proves it almost immediately when she craftily decides on the wine selection. It is she who calls out the other characters for what they truly are.
Billed as a comedy, Animals gives the listener a lot more to consider than just a way to elicit a few laughs. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has set the country on a path to examine its own inbred racism, using humor to diffuse the very touchy subjects of identity and entitlement as found in these personal interracial relationships is very timely. There is an underlying truth revealed by these outlandish characters and that is the real reason this comedy works.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival is produced by artistic director Mandy Greenfield with Kate Navin as artistic producer for Audible. Fan Zhang does a fine job as sound designer, while Tyler Thomas serves as assistant director.
Directed by Whitney White, Animals by Staci Osei-Kuffour is presented as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival on Audible, the leading creator and provider of premium audio storytelling. Running time is 96 minutes. Access to all seven titles in the festival series is available here.