Random Acts review. A white girl’s lessons in racial tension (in person!)

When Renata Hinrichs was five years old, a black girl beat her up, and a black boy rescued her. She re-enacts this scene about halfway through “Random Acts,” her solo autobiographical play that made me feel rejuvenated – momentarily relieved of some of the layers of stress that have built up over the last few days and weeks of too much news, too much accumulated outrage.
This was not so much because of the stories from her childhood that Hinrichs tells, which focus on racial tensions and efforts at reconciliation, nor even because of the way she tells them, inhabiting character after character with the physical grace and evocative movement of a long-time dancer, the ear of a subtle mimic, and the sensibility of someone who seems to have retained their childhood innocence and idealism.
What made the most difference for me was the setting. Thirteen of us gathered, masked and socially distanced, in the backyard of the Cell Theater on 23rd Street in Manhattan, for the first of four Sunday late matinee performances in October. The sights and sounds of the show were spontaneously supplemented by the pleasant smell of a wood-burning fireplace emanating from an unseen chimney, the light touch of the occasional early Autumn leaf, the cool taste of the crisp air. Live theater after such a long hiatus amplifies the undeniable pleasure of my fellow audience members’ actual laughter and applause.
I can’t know whether or not I would have felt as invigorated by “Random Acts” had I seen it in one of its (indoor) productions since 2014, including last year Off-Broadway.
The play begins with what promises to be a charming story of a mismatched high school romance. The teacher of her chemistry class seated students alphabetically, “so Renata Hinrichs, the dancer, sits next to Willie Helmes, the quarterback of the football team, who also happens to be the editor of the school newspaper.” There is real appeal in the way she tells, and meticulously embodies, their growing relationship, going step by step (sometimes literally; they both like to dance.) But then, the relationship comes to an abrupt halt – shortly after we learn, just as abruptly, that Willie is Black. And Hinrichs then goes back a dozen years before that, to the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, where the bulk of the storytelling takes place. Her father, a young Lutheran minister who has just graduated from a seminary in Boston, has relocated the family to take over his first church. The church is located on the dividing line between a black and white neighborhood, and the division is more than a matter of geography – from both sides. In one scene, members of the congregation walk out when her father baptizes a black baby; later they vote to hire a white janitor, even though a Black applicant is more qualified. The scene of the assault occurs when Renata greets a new classmate named Barbara, which makes Barbara nervous and enrages Barbara’s big sister Denise.
“Barbara, didn’t Mama tell you never to talk to no Whites? I’m gonna tell Mama when we get home and she’s gonna whup your ass.” And Denise lets loose on Renata until a teenager happens by, and tells her to leave the lil girl alone. Then the teenager stoops down and says “Lil girl, you didn’t do anything wrong. You talk to who you want to talk to, and you walk with who you want to walk with. Hear me?” She nods, he disappears into the school; she never got a glimpse of his face.
When Renata goes home to tell her father what happened, he tells her “Renata, do you realize what happened? That boy was your Guardian Angel.”
I’m not so cynical to dismiss this story outright, or the life-affirming lesson that the character (and obviously the storyteller) took from it. I understand it’s intended as one of the pivotal scenes underscoring a main theme of the play – how random acts of kindness and of cruelty guide our life. But it’s difficult to embrace such a scene wholeheartedly, given the intense public argument against Black character tropes such as the Magical Negro; it’s harder still to appreciate a later scene that shows the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination as a series of fearful encounters that little Renata experiences, given the push over the last few months for people of color to tell their own stories on stage. As openhearted as the performer seems to be, some theatergoers might feel that her main character’s childhood innocence leaves too much room for adult storyteller naiveté.
The largest frustration for me, though, was the abandonment of the teenage Renata in favor of the pre-pubescent Renata. I liked Renata and Willie! Since the relationship is based on a true story, I suppose frustration is the appropriate emotion. And we do return to them at the end, in a scene that involves characters communicating via social media. Luckily, for the 13 of us who signed the waivers and wore the masks, “Random Acts” wound up as close to social (without any media) as we’ve been for months.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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