Picture a two-color radial gradient—a central point, black, that smoothly spreads outward in a circular shape, making a transition to white on the fringe with all permutations in between. Using this as a metaphor for race and privilege, where would you put yourself?
This is the question we are ostensibly asked in “Radial Gradient,” by Jasmine Sharma, directed by Grace Dolezal-Ng and presented by Shattered Globe Theatre. In this of-its-time dramedy, three intersectional women of color jump between the past and present-day while tossing around quips of political humor amidst serious discussions about race. From MAGA-bashing to confronting one’s own inherent prejudices, the whole production mirrors a liberal millennial’s best dream. (Or worst nightmare!)
To complete her dissertation, Melanie (Kianna Rose) tricks her former sorority sisters Anjani (Simran Deokule) and Gigi (Isabelle Muthiah) into taking part in a hastily put-together focus group. The overarching topic: Inequality in sorority houses. The underlying topics: white privilege, defining “people of color,” colorism, tribalism, racial profiling, 9/11 and even more.
“Mel” is the “lib” that right-wing media warns us about: manipulative, accusatory, neurotic, saving the world by airing other people’s dirty laundry. The progressive leftist is not the hero of this story, and if you are politically left (like me) you might feel like Dorian Gray staring into his portrait. A shocking twist at the end reveals the deplorable lengths she will go to achieve her goals.
Lest I paint Mel as a villain, there is an underlying trauma that drives her neurosis, revealing a malevolence that is more than just skin-deep.
Mel’s subjects are two former friends who fell out over whether to stay or leave their sororities. Anjani, an Indian American, chose to leave over observed racist recruiting patterns; Gigi, who touts her mixed-race lineage when it suits her (though passes for white) opted to stay. The dialectic regarding colorism—racial discrimination between people of color—is clear and lucid between them, and the development of these two characters is earned and satisfying.
An abstract proscenium of angular beams designed by Sydney Lynne Thomas frame the events, which take place in a boardroom filled with elliptical tables and chairs and two recessed beds that swing out to create dormitories during flashbacks. Between scenes, projected headlines and newspaper clippings, designed by Parker Molacek, flash past too quickly to read, but give a general sense of life on campus, accentuated by thumping beats by Christopher Kriz and club-like lighting by Jason Lynch.
Chicago—and by extension its artists—is often described by some media outlets as uber-progressive and overtly liberal. There is truth in that. In the end, it is not Mel’s politically correct PowerPoint presentation but a heartfelt conversation that leads to progress; however, progress would never have been possible had not the subjects been coerced into the same room in the first place.
Do equitable ends justify duplicitous means? It’s quite the conundrum! “Radial Gradient” exposes the hypocrisy of the well-intentioned but overzealous political left while offering a path toward a healthy middle ground.
“Radial Gradient” at Shattered Globe Theatre, Theatre Wit, 1229 West Belmont, $15-$45, theatrewit.org, (773)975-8150. Through March 11.