Confounding Conversations

Tracey Scott Wilson's plays keep people talking about race in America

click to enlarge Buzzer at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Buzzer at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

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racey Scott Wilson, whose recent play Buzzer opens this week at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (it’s onstage through April 19), once said in an interview, “The biggest issue we have in this country is race, and it’s an issue that Americans don’t talk about much.” The 48-year-old playwright, originally from New Jersey, has been doing her part to foster more dialogue. In her 2003 play, The Story, an ambitious black newspaper reporter defies her editor to investigate a murder and finds an explosive but damaging story. Seven years later, Wilson’s script for The Good Negro told the story of three emerging civil rights leaders trying to conquer their individual demons as the local Ku Klux Klan promotes its prejudiced view of life and everyday African Americans strive to overcome their fears. Buzzer, a 2014 script, is set in the present, a story about returning to an evolving urban neighborhood. Wilson continues her clear-eyed explorations of race that are rendered with strength, focus and an invitation to debate. Her writing is more inclined to ask questions than to give easy answers.

Cincinnati Playhouse Associate Artist Timothy Douglas is the director of the production. He says it’s common for misunderstandings and defensiveness to enter discussions about race: “What many whites don’t get is that the burden in addressing those misunderstandings is often disproportionately placed on minorities to clarify their culturally-specific points of view before a progressive discussion can proceed. It’s a practice that becomes exhausting over time, and while it aids in the forward movement of the discussion, it provides only diminishing returns for people of color. It is often a higher-road choice to remain silent when faced with the conundrum of close friends having to work through complicated issues surrounding race.”

Wilson, however, neither remains silent nor shies away from complicated issues in her writing, and her plays are provocative in ways that spur conversations. They don’t provide answers, but they do expose the issues. Douglas is directing one of Wilson’s works for the first time, but he saw productions of The Story and The Good Negro in New York City. “What most attracts me to her work,” he says, “is its ability to distill the innumerable angles and often confounding conversations surrounding issues of race in America in a progressive and clarifying way.”

In Buzzer, Wilson puts three longtime friends in close quarters in an apartment in a rapidly changing community very much like Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine. Jackson is a successful young black attorney who grew up in the neighborhood; he views acquiring an upscale apartment as a return home, even though it bears almost no resemblance to where he grew up. Suzy, his white girlfriend and a teacher at an inner-city school, has doubts about her personal safety. Don, Jackson’s white prep-school friend from boyhood who came from wealth and privilege but has made a mess of his life with a drug habit he’s trying to overcome, rounds out the trio. No stranger to the neighborhood — it’s where his addictions began — he’s trying to get beyond the struggle. 

But Buzzer’s story is also about the nameless and faceless longtime residents of such neighborhoods, characterized by Douglas as “usually economically depressed people of color.” He adds, “In the heat of the transition there are palpable and sometimes explosive tensions between the outgoing and incoming residents.” 

The tenuous personal balance of relationships between Jackson, Don and Suzy is profoundly challenged by the neighborhood’s growing pains. The angry “buzzer” of the play’s title — enabling transitions from the world outside to the one inside — is a harsh reminder of the tough dialogue between haves and have-nots.

Wilson, now 48, grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University in 1989, then went on to Temple University for a master’s degree in English literature in 1993. She tried her hand at both journalism and fiction, but decided neither discipline was right for her. A course in playwriting led her to her life’s work — writing scripts that often blend fact and fiction. The Story was inspired by the 1981 Janet Cooke scandal at The Washington Post, when a young black journalist’s story of a child heroin addict proved to be a cobbled-together fiction. The Good Negro is her take on the early careers of people very much like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

Wilson’s career took off about 15 years ago, and she’s had productions at numerous regional theaters, although Buzzer is her first work to appear on a Cincinnati stage. Because it contains strong language about sex, drugs and race, the Playhouse suggests that the show is most appropriate for adult audiences. (Its New York debut at the Public Theater is happening this month, almost simultaneously with the production at the Playhouse.)

Interestingly, the cast of Buzzer at the Playhouse features Eric Lynch as Jackson. Lynch, now a Chicago-based performer, grew up in Cincinnati. His father is Rev. Damon Lynch III, an influential pastor at New Prospect Baptist Church (formerly located in Over-the-Rhine), and his grandfather is Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., a pastor at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church (in Roselawn) and a legendary civil rights activist. So the young actor — who also played this role in a production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater — knows how the issues of Buzzer have played out in Cincinnati. In a recent conversation, he told me that, since his father’s church was in Over-the-Rhine, he certainly knows how the neighborhood has evolved. His family lived in a more middle-class part of the city, providing the young actor with a sense of the divide that fuels Buzzer’s drama.

Wilson hopes her writing provokes conversation. “I don’t want to be didactic or tell people what to think, or say, ‘This is the right path,’ ” she said in a 2009 interview. Her desire is for you to “keep talking after you leave the theater.” Buzzer will surely do that for Cincinnati Playhouse audiences. ©


BUZZER opens Thursday and continues through April 19 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. More info: cincyplay.com.


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