I must admit, when I heard Theatre in the Park was producing Beth Graham’s play The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble with an all-Black cast, I was skeptical. Was this a feeble attempt at being “woke” or a conscientious choice to imbue a layer of complexity into Graham’s script?
On its surface, The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble is a memory play about navigating familial relationships and caring for aging parents. But add to that an exploration of matricentric family dynamics, mental health, and end-of-life decision making, through the lens of a Black family, and Graham’s script becomes that much juicier, almost to a fault.
Indeed, Jesse Gephart’s insightful and thoughtful direction breathes nuance into a piece that might have otherwise been forgettable. In addition, the dynamism of some of the performances certainly makes the production engaging, as does Erin Morales’ mesmerizing, orbicular set. And the opportunity to explore the universality of how we love, how we communicate, and even how we grieve, is intriguing.
But does any of this excuse the fact that there might have been other plays, other titles, penned by Black playwrights, that speak to a lived experience better than this one does? Even if color-conscious casting elevates a play’s impact or message, is it necessary or even appropriate in the wake of the recent reckoning of white American theater? Is this in fact just another form of tokenism?
Honestly, I don’t have any answers. I also wonder if my reaction says more about my own expectations and bias as a white audience member than anything else.
And to be fair, Gephart addresses this very criticism in his Director’s Notes, which are buried in the digital show program. He writes that since Graham did not specify a race for the Trimble family in the text, he saw ample opportunity to uplift Black voices and spotlight how Alzheimer’s Disease impacts the Black community.
And while that is certainly admirable, I would argue that any white director and ally consider collaborating with a dramaturg to analyze and contextualize the work and its language early on in the pre-production planning. That way any casting and design decisions don’t become distractions, and the finished product feels more genuine than performative.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble runs through October 17. For more information visit https://www.theatreinthepark.com/.