Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Kai A. Ealy and Nicole Fabbri. Photo by Eric Kirkes.
By Conor McShane
The institution of marriage has been going through a bit of an identity crisis lately. A custom that has existed in nearly every culture on Earth for millennia, for most of its existence it was—and in many cases still is—used as a tool, a strategy to unite families and combine wealth and property. Only relatively recently did the balance shift as marriage came to be considered an expression of love and devotion rather than a political move, at least in the United States. So for many young couples, the idea of marriage can’t help but feel hopelessly old-fashioned in a society with ever-shifting social mores. For interracial couples, this wasn’t even something that could be considered until as recently as 1967, when interracial marriage was finally legalized in the U.S. Aurin Squire’s play DON’T SMOKE IN BED, directed by Chika Ike in Chimera Ensemble’s stateside premiere, examines the particular challenges of interracial marriage in American society through the lens of one particular pairing.
The pairing in question is between Sheryl (Nicole Fabbri) and Richard (Kai A. Ealy), a married couple made up of self-described “S.I.I.s–Seriously Intellectual Interracials.” Both reasonably well-off academics, Sheryl comes from a rather conservative Irish-American family, who have never been fully onboard with her marriage to Richard, the son of affluent Jamaican immigrants who, in turn, don’t really approve of Sheryl either. They’ve been chosen to be interviewed in their own home by an unseen reporter who communicates with them via an ever-present webcam, a decision which they hope will lead to a series of articles and maybe even a book deal. They do end up getting offered a series, and over the course of several months, the couple gets pregnant, has their baby, argues about their respective upbringings and the pressures of their marriage, and eventually struggles through the fallout of a sadly common marital problem.
Fabbri and Ealy deliver strong, grounded performances, and their chemistry feels lived-in, particularly in a scene where they lounge in bed discussing their sex life. But despite their solid work, the play doesn’t quite manage to pull its various musings together into a satisfying whole. Squire’s script gets into a lot of fascinating ideas: the inherent biases facing interracial couples and the way their relationship is perceived by both white and black onlookers; a lengthy monologue in which Sheryl voices her many concerns over the struggles of raising a biracial child, whether it’s a boy or a girl; the complex intersection of race and sexuality, any of which probably needs its own play to fully unpack. As a result, Sheryl and Richard often feel more like sounding boards for these weighty themes than flesh and blood characters in their own right.
These are rich, compelling, and extremely important questions to consider–and ones that theater seems uniquely suited for, with its unflinching examinations of human relationships—but they don’t always have a lot of time to breathe in Squire’s script. The webcam, too, is an interesting dramatic device, one that forces the characters to behave in ways they might not otherwise if someone weren’t watching their every move, but the play doesn’t always make use of it; at times it doesn’t seem like the camera’s presence has any bearing on the action. In its last few scenes, the play essentially ditches its thorny subject matter to become more about Richard having an affair, which can’t help but feel like an unnecessary pivot away from the richer, more singular conflict of its first half. The play thankfully allows both characters their own fears and insecurities, but shifting focus to Richard’s infidelity pushes it into narrative territory that’s already been very well-trod.
Ultimately, DON’T SMOKE IN BED deserves to be commended for opening a discussion into the particular struggles of interracial couples, something which even today doesn’t appear onstage very often. While societal attitudes towards interracial marriage have warmed somewhat (at least from it being outright illegal for centuries), plenty of stigma still exists, and the play deserves credit for diving into it headfirst. While we’ve seen plenty of stories of love crossing racial boundaries, there are precious few about what comes after that, about the difficulties of building a life with someone when there’s so much societal baggage in the way. Can you endure despite the pressures, or are you forced to fall into the traps society lays for you? It’s a vital and complex question, but I just can’t help but wish that this particular play had pulled these fascinating threads into a more emotionally satisfying story.
DON’T SMOKE IN BED plays through July 8 at The Pentagon Theater at Collaboraction Studios. More info at chimeraensemble.com.