Kevin McKeon's deadpan plus Charles Norris's effervescence equals kick-ass. Some dialogue: "This is your racist test." "I have to take a racist test?" "You said you weren't no racist." "Do you have to take a racist test?" "You better re-read Malcolm, Arthur P. I can't BE a racist. I'm the oppressed!"
Seattle is lucky to have two quality productions running right now—one good, one great—that are set 70 years apart but contain some strong performances and uncanny sympathetic resonances about race, family (blood and chosen), and the fights and evasions among people who love each other, however begrudgingly.
Pullman Porter Blues at Seattle Rep, a world premiere by playwright Cheryl L. West, follows three generations of African American porters working a Pullman train full of white assholes between Chicago and New Orleans on the night of the legendary boxing match between Joe Louis and James Braddock. Superior Donuts, by Tracy Letts at Seattle Public Theater, concerns a hangdog white pot-smoker who owns a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago, his exuberant new African American assistant, and their cops-and-robbers neighbors. Both plays happen to have a fistfight as their secret fulcrum—moments of violence that are freighted with fierce love. The Pullman fight is obvious: Louis vs. Braddock, which Langston Hughes and others have written about as an enormous moment for black hope in the United States. The Donuts fight is more surprising, but even more pivotal to the play. (I won't spoil it for you here.)
First, the great: Superior Donuts is a small but kick-ass play full of kick-ass actors. Letts wrote it after his hugely ambitious, award-winning August: Osage County, which required 13 actors and a three-story house as its set. While critics swooned over August, its grand architecture—both the set and the story's mechanics—tended to upstage the heart of the play itself. The storefront-sized confines of Donuts give its characters greater fluidity and freedom, and their little tics speak volumes more than any sweeping gestures. August was a pretty good epic; Donuts is an exquisite sonnet.