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We’re Butter Together: A Review of American Legacy Theatre’s Production of “Spinning into Butter”

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Spinning Into Butter: American Legacy Theatre

(Note: this is a new and updated review of my previous review–the first review was with the understudy cast and this is a second viewing.)

Racially motivated hate crimes are becoming all too common on college campuses.  In 2017, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported close to 280 hate crimes across college campuses throughout the United States. These hate crimes can take any number of forms — including racially derogatory notes sent to minority students. Such notes forms the basis of the American Legacy Theatre’s latest production, Rebecca Gilman’s Spinning into Butter.

Spinning into Butterdeals with the aftermath of fictional Belmont College dealing with the racism behind these derogatory notes, both from the administration and the student body. Administrators Strauss (Elliott Young) and Kenney (Katie Groneman) want to find a quick solution to the problem, either by creating racial forums or generating ten-point plans to deal with the issue.  Students Greg (Ray Dzhorgov) and Patrice (Anyssa Selkirk) want to use the incident to explore issues of racial politics and identity, while faculty member Ross (Caleb Farley) and Dean of Student Services Sarah (Hannah Rahe Goodman) each explore their own racial biases.

A newcomer onto the Cincinnati theatre scene, American Legacy Theatre (A.L.T.) is the brainchild of Matthew David Gellin. The driving force in creating A.L.T. is to change the nature of the theatrical experience. The group is dedicated to presenting their shows in intimate, site-specific settings that complement the themes of their shows. For example, in November, the company had a show held on the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar in response to audience interest in gentrification in Over-the-Rhine. 

Ultimately, A.L.T. has a stretch goal of becoming part of a National Theatre in the United States (we are the only first world country without a National Theatre).

A.L.T.’s partnership with The Carnegie Center of Columbia Tusculum, a former Carnegie library, makes it the perfect location for the formal academic feel of Belmont College.  Bookcases line the walls of the theatre space and the high vaulted ceilings convey a splendor of yesteryear.  Director Matt Gellin further highlights this space by having a theatre-in-the-round arrangement. Gellin does a fine job at moving actors through the space without privileging a particular angle.  

Gellin is also able to get sculpted performances where actors interact with each other in interesting ways.  For instance, Ray Dzhorgov, who plays Greg, did some wonderful facial and verbal reactions to Sarah’s questions about forming the student group Students for Tolerance.

It made Greg’s small role that much more interesting to watch.

Hannah Rahe Goodman, who played the lead, Sarah, was a wonderful study in how the bland niceties of professionalism can hide roiling emotions of anger, hurt, and hatred. Rahe Goodman does a strong job showing the ways that Sarah’s professional mask slowly disintegrates over the course of the play.  Rahe Goodman is in every scene of the play, so the audience gets a chance to see that slow destruction of her mask in slow stages. 

Rahe Goodman was particularly strong with Sarah’s long speech in the middle of Act II where she reveals all her racist thoughts.  Equally compelling was her speech at the end of the play where she talks about holding the hands of Simon Brick, the African-American student who was the target of the derogatory notes.  The pathos of the scene was moving.

The cast also had two out standouts—the actors plays Ross (Caleb Farley) and Strauss (Elliott Young).  Farley plays Ross as the carefree man-boy faculty member who was sleeping with Sarah while his other girlfriend Petra was out of the country. Farley brings conviction to that part and is skillfully able to interact with Sarah (Rahe Goodman) in ways that are enjoyable to watch and holds the audience’s attention.

Elliot Young as Strauss is a wonderful blend of crazed insistence with blowhard surety. Young knows how to deliver the right amount of each of these traits in his performance to make the audience never certain what he will do next.  His interactions with Kenney (Katie Groneman) were also a wonderful study in how actors react to other.  

The title of the play Spinning into Butterdraws the story of Little Black Sambo, where the tigers who take all of Little Black Sambo’s clothing spin themselves into butter by running around in circles. Taking the title and “spinning” it a little bit further, the play ultimately comes to the conclusion that “we’re butter together” by recognizing our common humanity instead of being divided by issues of race. 

I saw this production with the Monday night understudy cast and felt the play was deserving enough to be seen again with the main cast.  As a play, Spinning into Butteris rich and complex enough to be seen several times without feeling repetitive.  This production in particular is a solid rendition of a timely play that should not be missed.  Spinning into Butter is seldom performed in the Cincinnati area and it has enough drama, heart, and issues to satisfy anyone who loves theatre. 

Spinning into Butterruns for the next two weeks, with performances running at 7:30 pm on February 7, 11 (second understudy performance), 15, and 16 with 2pm performances on February 10 and 17.  Go to https://www.americanlegacytheatre.org/spinning-into-butterto find out more information concerning production dates/times.