Theory's stellar cast breathes life into academic script on free speech and white privilege

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      By Norman Yeung. Directed by Mily Mumford. Produced as part of Rumble Theatre’s Tremors 2018 festival. At the Italian Cultural Centre on Thursday, August 16. Continues until August 25 

      Isabelle (Elizabeth Willow) is a young, white professor fresh off her PhD, teaching her first film theory course at her new tenure-track job. She fancies herself a cultural critic—“Nothing offends me!” she says several times—whose approach in the classroom is to make her students realize that she is giving them the “gift of empowerment” by subverting their normal “dead white guy” syllabus to include more diversity. She also implements an online message board in which her 100 students can talk to each other anonymously. “That could suck real fast,” one of the students points out, but Isabelle dismisses their concerns.

      Of course, it does suck real fast, and students begin debating, in real life and online, the validity of studying and discussing films that are rooted in racism and hate or that depict graphic sex and violence. Soon, students are using racist slurs in the classroom and on the message board, but Isabelle refuses to moderate or remove posts. To do so would be an act of oppression and censorship, she tells Lee (Mariam Barry), her wife, a tenured professor at another university. Lee, who is black, points out that in providing the platform and then abdicating any responsibility for what transpires, Isabelle is complicit in condoning racism and hate speech, but Isabelle won’t listen to Lee’s counsel. Nor does she think anything of bringing this hate into their home and inflicting this violence on Lee. In fact, numerous students of colour also let Isabelle know that what they’re experiencing in her class and on the message board is deeply traumatizing, but Isabelle isn’t listening to them either.

      When Isabelle herself becomes the target of one particularly aggressive anonymous message board participant, Theory kicks into more of a creepy thriller, but by then the audience doesn’t necessarily care what happens to Isabelle. Playwright Norman Yeung’s ambition and intelligence are obvious, and Theory has a lot of potential, but it needs more work. Some future version of Theory could be a truly incisive commentary on the ways in which people of colour continue to pay the cost of white privilege, but this iteration is such a cerebral affair that Theory feels more academic than affecting, and frustrating rather than provocative. The play lives up to its title because in theory it works—the cast is solid, the performances are great, the premise is contemporary, and the staging is creative—but it needs more development on the page before it can truly resonate on the stage.