Marking Whiteness in “About Face”

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Stephen Graf ’s honors solo performance thesis, “About Face: Marking the Unmarked” is a challenging piece for performer and viewer that treads the fine lines of race-relations from a specifically white ‘lens.’ In this original work, Graf ‘09 uses the lens of “whiteness” in order to explore its possible definitions. What it means to be white is explored against many of the stereotypes, histories, and responses to race-relations in contemporary America.

Influenced by the work of playwright Joseph Chaikin, Graf has designed the performance to be made up of a series of scenes that focus on how race-relations are understood from a white perspective. “For me the complication and the intricacy does not come from a particular scene,” explains Graf. “The way the scenes kind of mesh together, the interstices, is where the complexity of it comes in.”

Though not exclusively a one-man play—Graf is supported by the performances of Carmella Ollero ’09 and Jackie Vitale ’09—the performance is centered around Graf’s shifting portrayals that paint a range from sharp, stylized parody to intimate, sometimes brutal honesty.

The play’s form, in consequence, is a continually shifting combination of approaches. As in Chaikin’s work, various media and found material has been incorporated into the production a touch that Graf feels appropriately echoes his own process. Film, music, pop cultural references, poetry, and speeches are a few of the examples that thread their way into each scene.

The ‘stage’ of the Frear has been simply but gracefully established with a few basic props, including a central white block. The space is shared with the audience and the performances are often carved out through specific lighting choices. The flexibility of these choices sets audience and actor on an equal plain, making the impact of each invitation and confrontation more immediate and intense.

The work has been created in collaboration with Jackie Vitale ’09, who has served as production dramaturge for the project as her own honors dramaturgy project. Her position, which she describes as “making sure that the core of the piece is met in all of the details of the performance,” has been particularly exciting as it has given her the opportunity to work with the playwright.

For Vitale, who has simultaneously begun work on her directing project this spring’s production of “Macbeth,” part of the excitement of “About Face” has been in working on a play that is still in development rather than an established text. “We’re working on the play and we don’t know what it is yet… It’s much more of an adventure.”

The movements in “About Face” dance across both heavy and humorous territory with a thoughtful effort to explore and allow the audience to develop their own conclusions. The content is certainly intellectual but it is Graf’s emotionally protean performance, from his opening prayer, halfway between poetic invocation and plea for mercy, that holds the audience in thrall.

“About Face” is directed by Maria Möler; lighting by Maria Shaplin, assisted by Cara Arcuni ’09; Dan Perelstein ‘09 is sound engineer; props mistress is Tanya Alvarez ’09. The performance will be held in Frear Ensemble Theater at 8pm on Friday and Saturday, 2pm on Sunday.

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