In absurdist comedy ‘Blackademics,’ a revealing take on racial inequality on campus

Three strong actors, a chair, a tiny table and a few props: Those are all the ingredients needed in Idris Goodwin’s 2012 play Blackademics. Two Black female college professors — Rachelle (Chelsea Frye) and Ann (Tobi Johnson-Compton) meet at an ostensibly fancy restaurant that turns out to be a bare-bones, no-exit trap serving as a racial allegory for who gets a seat at the table.

They are greeted by waitress-from-hell Georgia (Stephanie Saltis) — a smug, arrogant young White woman who steers the two academics down a rabbit hole of impossible choices, ridiculous competition and recrimination. While it ultimately is meant to distract them from the greater forces at work against them, Georgia’s control over the women by withholding food and service unless they jump through some bizarre hoops works on a visceral level because, well, everyone understands hungry.

Director Betty Hart does a beautiful job balancing the comedy inherent in the story with the absurdist elements that lead Blackademics to some dark places — many of which are unarticulated but clear enough to see. I can see why this play appealed to Hart, who’s also Black, as a sort of modern-day Beckett- or Sartre-like take on the challenges faced by African-Americans — and Black women particularly.

Stephanie Saltis plays the mysteriously sadistic waitress in ‘Blackademics.’

While they’re both college professors, the two women are in different places. Ann has just gotten tenure at an elite liberal college while Rachel, who’s struggled to make ends meet at a state university, has just lost her gig (although this doesn’t come out until later). Ann invited her to the café to celebrate her good news, but it only serves to convince Rachelle that Ann’s sold out to the White powers-that-be at her school.

If it seems at first that the messaging in Blackademics a bit heavy-handed, Goodwin’s use of the absurd aptly parallels the exaggerated ills rained down upon the women by Georgia. It’s a neat performance by Saltis who, charged with representing White power and privilege, bounces in and out of the scenes with a sweetly malevolent smile while she informs the women of the latest dictum from an unseen “chef.” Challenging them to articulate some of their own philosophies on the same subject, Georgia awards points that equate to having a chair to sit in or a salad to enjoy. (This after proffering upon entrance an amuse-bouche in the form of a single seed served from her cupped hands.)

In between all the tension are quite a few very funny bits. Faced with thirst and a pitcher of water unaccompanied by a cup of any sort, Rachel carefully pours water directly into her mouth. It’s a site gag that Frye pulls off matter-of-factly as a means to an end but that nonetheless points again to Georgia (the character and, I suppose, the state) giving them just enough to get by while withholding the luxury of a drinking vessel.

Hart chose the cast well, with Johnson-Compton’s performance as the uptight academic achieving the apotheosis of tenure particularly compelling contrasted with Frye’s fall from grace. For her part, Frye plays the esurient diner with a well-balanced mix of comic chops and convincing exasperation at both the immediate indignities being served upon her as well as the ones that face her in the outer world.

As tensions mounted, I found myself eager to see Saltis’s next arrival as the increasingly belligerent Georgia. Successfully depicting both comic relief and the instrument of further injustices, Saltis trips through the role with the aplomb of a much more seasoned actor.

Blackademics may be somewhat uncomfortable to sit through for White people, but I found it refreshingly honest and clever. Set in the small Bond Trimble Theatre at Vintage, the audience on the night I saw it was mostly comprised of Black people who responded verbally to a lot of the action — a quirk of Black theatregoers that’s part of a call-and-response tradition that’s as rewarding to the actors as laughter, I should think.

As the other end of the theatrical spectrum from the big musical, a show like Blackademics is form of minimalist theatre that we don’t get to see very often. Idris’s script is fast-moving and challenging to follow at times, but for anyone looking to get another view of both the absurd and serious side of race in America, it’s a must-see.