A ceramic, Aunt Jemima-shaped cookie jar sits prominently downstage on the set of Kirsten Greenidge’s semi-surreal new play, "Rust." Like other objects and characters that appear throughout — a lawn jockey, a pigtailed "pickaninny," Uncle Ben of instant rice fame, even Jemima herself — the jar is a pointed reminder of the racist stereotypes that white America has historically perpetuated. "Rust," part of the Magic Theatre’s Hot House series of world premieres in rotating rep, posits that that shameful legacy lives on in other ways.
Black football star Randall Mifflin (an intensely focused Mikaal Sulaiman) is refusing to play or even leave his house. Everyone — his teammate Chunk-Chunk (a hearty and amiable Donald Lett), Chunk’s myopic girlfriend, Randall’s wife Jeannie, a pair of sportscasters (sharply satiric turns by Lance Gardner and Eric Fraisher Hayes) — wonders what frightens him.
As it happens, Randall’s been getting phone calls from the Aunt Jemima figure (a vibrant Cathleen Riddley). "Honey lamb, let people know who we truly is," she begs.
"I’m startin’ to think deep, and it’s making me angry," an unnerved Randall tells Chunk. Randall’s beginning to see his own reflection in the shameful artifacts, wondering if, although he’s a hero on the playing field, he’s also seen as the "big black bogeyman" that white folks fear.
And Randall’s haunted by disturbing memories of his mother. She never approved of his football career: "You’re a black body runnin’ through the grass," she warns, "and you’re gonna get spit out."
But it’s unclear what Randall’s tough-love Mama and her Aunt Jemima alter ego want him to do. They give vague counsel — "Make that grass burn" — no wonder Randall’s confused. And so are we.
Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges keeps the action moving briskly, but too much is going on in Greenidge’s script. An uneven cast and a too-elaborate set don’t help. (Production design was inspired by the work of African-American artist Kara Walker.) In the play’s most successful scene, stellar actor L. Peter Callender appears as an antiques dealer profiting from racist icons. It proves Greenidge has a strong idea; she needs to sharpen and clarify it.
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Buchanan Street and Marina Boulevard, San Francisco
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. some Saturdays and Sundays; closes April 1
Tickets: $20 to $45
Contact: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org