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Insight Theatre examines racism in the university in ‘Spinning Into Butter’

Cast members of Insight Theatre Company's production of "Spinning Into Butter."
(Courtesy of Insight Theatre Company)

In line with its mission to “reveal the complexity of the human spirit,” Insight Theatre Company concludes its season with “Spinning Into Butter,” a performance exploring blatant and latent racism in university culture.

Set on the fictional Belmont College in Vermont, the play follows the liberal dean of students as she investigates racist notes sent to one of the school’s few students of color. The investigation prompts the dean—Sarah Daniels, played at Insight by Jenni Ryan—and the school as a whole to confront their personal experiences and ideas about race.

The story of “Spinning Into Butter” is drawn in part from playwright Rebecca Gilman’s personal experience, said director Trish Brown. A similar problem arose at Middlebury College—a small, liberal arts university in northern Vermont—when Gilman was a student there.

The play’s ties to real experiences make the words and deeds of the characters slightly uncomfortable to perform, the actors said. Sarah Daniels, the play’s primary character, has to come to grips with her own, secret prejudices in the middle of the investigation, and old, suppressed biases come bubbling up.

“She views herself as someone who wants to do the right thing,” said Ryan of her character. “She wants to help people, she wants to be a good person, and she is faced with learning and accepting some things about herself that we would not necessarily characterize as good or right.

“There are some ugly things that come out of Sarah’s mouth,” however, “and it was very hard at first to separate myself from that.”

John Contini’s character Burton Strauss, dean of the humanities at Belmont, is Sarah’s primary antagonist. “He’s a bit on the pompous side,” Contini said. “He finds a few things out about himself that he wasn’t aware of during the course of the play.”

Simon, a black student targeted for harassment, is another crucial character. Simon is never seen on stage—a curious convention, Brown said, chosen to represent our inability to understand anyone’s personal experiences without ever interacting with the person themselves. The administrators so upset at Simon’s harassment, for example, never physically interact with him over the course of the play.

Though the play focuses on serious and nuanced questions of identity and racial bias, Brown says that the production is meant to open a dialogue about all kinds of prejudice: ageism, gender bias, classism. Insight’s performance of “Spinning Into Butter” will feature talk-back sessions after Sunday matinees in which the audience can also address the tough questions the play elicits.

“It doesn’t end in disaster. It ends with…looking into the future to make ourselves better,” Ryan said. “It’s very personal, and I think it’s worth thinking about—how we feel about each other in this world.”

Insight Theatre Company presents Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter"

  • August 27, 28, 29 and September 4, 5, 10, and 11, 2015 - 8:00 p.m.
  • August 30 and September 6 and 13, 2015 - 2:00 p.m.
  • Nerinx Hall's Heagney Theatre, 530 East Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, MO 63119

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer.The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and theArtsand Education Council of Greater St. Louis.