A race and class anal­y­sis in Su­pe­rior Donuts

Race, class, and food for thought in Su­pe­rior donuts

The McGill Daily - - News - Sabrine Maaz Cul­ture Writer

Don’t let the ti­tle fool you – Su­pe­rior Donuts, writ­ten by Pulitzer Prize win­ner Tracy Letts in 2008, is not the feel-good com­edy you would ex­pect from some­thing named after a com­fort food. Set in the epony­mous donut shop of Chicago’s de­vel­op­ing Up­town neigh­bour­hood, the play tells the story of shop owner Arthur Przy­byszewski and his strug­gle to sal­vage his busi­ness after a van­dal broke in and graf­fi­tied “Pussy” on the wall be­hind the counter.

The ren­di­tion by Mcgill’s Play­ers’ The­atre, di­rected by Clay Walsh, suc­cess­fully bal­anced the play’s heavy sub­ject mat­ter with light scenes of comic re­lief, de­spite the drama’s over­all mourn­ful tone. How­ever, the au­di­ence be­comes disori­ented as they are con­stantly pulled be­tween th­ese two ex­tremes: is this a com­edy or a tragedy? The set­ting seems to sug­gest that it should be a com­edy – the retro donut shop rem­i­nis­cent of vin­tage sit­coms, with reg­u­lar cus­tomers that never fail to amuse with their ob­vi­ous so­cial awk­ward­ness.

How­ever, de­spite chuck­ling at the off­hand re­marks made by Franco (the young new em­ployee of Su­pe­rior Donuts) I was left with a sink­ing de­spair at the in­ter­mis­sion and after the play. Feel­ing be­trayed by the play’s un­ex­pected dark­ness, it be­came clear to me that Su­pe­rior Donuts, un­like reg­u­lar donuts, was not meant to make you feel good. In fact, the play is a dark com­edy that ex­plores not only themes of loss and friend­ship, but also the un­der­ly­ing sys­tems of op­pres­sion that drive the char­ac­ters into dilem­mas where they must pit their dreams against re­al­ity.

Jonathan Van­der­zon played Arthur, the mid­dle-aged donut mas­ter of Pol­ish de­scent who has ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ries of hard­ships, lead­ing him to ex­pect noth­ing but fail­ure. As a dis­il­lu­sioned di­vorcee whose es­tranged wife died of cancer after their sep­a­ra­tion, he is too emo­tion­ally numb to no­tice that a young po­lice of­fi­cer, Randy Os­teen (played by Francesca Scotti- Goetz) has fallen in love with him. A young Black man named Franco Wicks (played by Sory Ibrahim Kaboré) charms Arthur into of­fer­ing him a much-needed job at the shop, and pro­ceeds to at­tempt to rec­tify both Arthur’s ro­man­tic life and his fail­ing busi­ness.

The well- spo­ken Franco boldly urges Arthur to up­date the es­tab­lish­ment by play­ing lively mu­sic and of­fer­ing healthy menu op­tions, cit­ing the ‘Whole Foods men­tal­ity‘ that is emerg­ing in the work­ing­class neigh­bour­hood as a re­sult of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, like his donut shop, Arthur is stuck in the past and takes of­fense at Franco’s sug­ges­tions, yelling, “I’m the owner!” in a tense mo­ment, shred­ding any il­lu­sion that this play is a sim­ple com­edy. Franco at­tempts to talk Arthur out of his pes­simism, to no avail. Not only does Arthur doubt change will ben­e­fit his shop but he also re­sists change in gen­eral, in­sist­ing on keep­ing his hair long, and his clothes as di­sheveled as his store.

Franco is a ray of hope in ev­ery sense of the term. He brings hu­mour to the ta­ble with his witty come­backs to Arthur and serves up some am­bi­tion to the audi- ence as he presents him with a bat­tered man­u­script. It is for his Great Amer­i­can Novel about a Black man who tries to make it big in the States. Even Arthur, a se­cret lit­er­a­ture buff, is blown away by the young man’s ta­lent and urges him to show the book to a pub­lisher. After Arthur leaves the scene, how­ever, two Italian mafiosos who de­scribe them­selves as Franco’s ‘friends’ come to ex­tort Franco for the $16,000 he owed them in gam­bling money. The boss Luther Flynn (played by Thomas Fix) gives him an ul­ti­ma­tum: have the money by next week or suf­fer the con­se­quences. Arthur ar­rives just in time to see them leav­ing but Franco re­fuses to re­veal their iden­tity.

The down­ward spi­ral be­gins. When Franco be­gins to get un­com­fort­ably fa­mil­iar with Arthur by ask­ing what hap­pened to his wife, Arthur gives him the cold shoul­der, say­ing that he was only paid to work, not to talk, and this rup­ture marks the end of Franco’s op­ti­mism. One week later, Arthur learns that Franco has been hos­pi­tal­ized be­cause two men broke his fin­gers and de­stroyed his pre­cious man­u­script. Arthur ul­ti­mately ac­quits Franco’s debt out of his own pocket, plan­ning to re­deem his friend­ship with Franco after the lat­ter ex­its the hospi­tal. But when Franco re­turns to the donut shop, he is quiet and with­drawn be­cause his dream was de­stroyed along with his novel.

As the play de­scends into a se­ries of tragic events, the hope­less cir­cum­stances faced by the main char­ac­ters ap­pear to be con­se­quences not of their own ac­tions – but of a so­ci­ety built upon racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. As Franco strives to­ward the so-called ‘Amer­i­can dream,’ sys­temic op­pres­sion is ev­i­dent as he is forced to drop out of school and re­sort to work­ing in a donut shop to sup­port his mother and sis­ters who are liv­ing on food stamps.

How­ever, de­spite ac­knowl­edg­ing th­ese in­ter­sec­tions of racism and clas­sism and im­plic­itly cri­tiquing cap­i­tal­ism, the play fails to in­ter­ro­gate its own per­pet­u­a­tion of th­ese sys­temic is­sues. Franco’s char­ac­ter plays upon racial stereo­types: he is por­trayed as an ‘ en­ter­tainer,’ play­ing the light-hearted, funny, and ex­tro­verted Black friend to Arthur. Sim­i­larly, the Black po­lice of­fi­cer is de­picted as friv­o­lous and ir­ra­tional when he is be­rated for dress­ing up as var­i­ous fic­tional char­ac­ters at comic book con­ven­tions. Even Arthur’s char­ac­ter re­lies on the trope of ‘Pol­ish hope­less­ness’ – a com­mon and ex­plicit theme in his many so­lil­o­quies – through his in­tro­verted, awk­ward, pes­simistic, and old-fash­ioned de­pic­tion.

The play’s highly prob­lem­atic con­clu­sion con­tin­ues to re­in­force the hi­er­ar­chy it at­tempts to cri­tique. A now-op­ti­mistic Arthur pays off Franco, who has shifted from stereo­typ­i­cally ‘en­ter­tain­ing’ to hope­less,

The ren­di­tion by Mcgill’s Play­ers’ The­atre [...] suc­cess­fully bal­anced the play’s heavy sub­ject mat­ter with light scenes of comic re­lief, de­spite the drama’s over­all mourn­ful tone.

en­act­ing the white-saviour nar­ra­tive. In a twist of events, Franco re­jects Arthur’s help, in­sist­ing that he “doesn’t want no hand­outs” as an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the same struc­tural forces that cor­nered him into his cur­rent servi­tude.

Over­all, the ac­tors por­trayed their char­ac­ters very ef­fec­tively, es­pe­cially Jonathan Van­der­zon, who in­fused Arthur’s so­lil­o­quies with just the right amount of nos­tal­gia to con­vey the spirit of a re­bel­lious young man in a mid­dle- aged body. An­other high­light was Lady Boyle ( played by Gre­tel Kahn), the ec­cen­tric, colour­fully- dressed elderly lady who speaks too loudly and can make Arthur smile like no­body else. Kaboré was de­light­fully en­er­getic and play­ful as Franco, ra­di­at­ing hope – at least in the be­gin­ning – and rep­re­sent­ing the beat­ing heart of the plot.

How­ever, Franco and Arthur’s di­a­logues seemed a lit­tle forced at times – though this is per­haps in­ten­tional given that Arthur is sup­posed to be an awk­ward char­ac­ter. The dy­namic be­tween Arthur and Lady Boyle was the most nat­u­ral one. In gen­eral, all the other char­ac­ters seemed to have lit­tle rap- port with each other, re­sult­ing in slightly awk­ward stage di­a­logues in which it seemed more like the char­ac­ters were wait­ing for each other’s turn to speak rather than hav­ing a nat­u­ral con­ver­sa­tion.

De­spite my ini­tial dis­ap­point­ment that the play was not the com­edy I ex­pected it to be, the tragic el­e­ments pro­vided in­sight into the harsh con­di­tions faced by Chicago’s im­mi­grant and racial­ized work­ing class. After the play ended, the au­di­ence was left won­der­ing: how can hope – em­bod­ied by Franco Wicks – sur­vive, when so­ci­ety is build­ing bar­ri­ers be­tween him and his dream? Judg­ing by the solemn end­ing, the story line seems to sug­gest that hope can­not sur­vive as long as so­ci­ety re­volves around struc­tural vi­o­lence, de­spite Arthur’s hope­ful recita­tion of the catch­phrase that “Amer­ica will be.” The de­li­ciously good act­ing and witty repar­tees will leave you with a bitter af­ter­taste once you re­al­ize that this play is a grim but ac­cu­rate de­pic­tion of the tragedy of a boy who fails to make it big due to the class­based and racial bar­ri­ers plagu­ing the coun­try he once ide­al­ized.

Cour­tesy of Ansh Goyal

Van­der­zon and Kaboré in Su­pe­rior Donuts.

Sabrine Maaz | Il­lus­tra­tor

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