“Most plays have this rule imbedded in them,” said Khalil Sullivan two days before opening night of “Playing in the Dark,” which he wrote and directs for his senior thesis. “A play has an action, a desire that characters want, and obstacles in the way of completing that action.”
Sullivan, an English major from New Carrollton, Maryland, learned this rule of writing for the theater in his sophomore year introductory playwriting class. He follows it faithfully throughout “Playing in the Dark.” The play is about two college students: Solomon, a black frat boy who dreams of earning enough money to have “a lifetime supply of Snickers bars and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream”; and Justin, a rich white romantic who picks up Solomon at a train station on his way into New York City.
The most obvious obstacle that Justin and Solomon must overcome is their fear of coming out to certain figures in their lives. Justin, played by Alex Adam, is openly gay at school but does not know how to tell his workaholic father about his sexuality. Solomon, played by Rodney Deavault, has not revealed to anyone that he is gay and worries that his roommates will discover his secret. Sullivan has assigned the role of Justin’s father and one of Solomon’s roommates to the same actor, Jon Miller. One of Sullivan’s many insightful casting decisions, it reminds the audience that Justin and Solomon are less concerned with coming out to one particular person than they are afraid of what society as a whole thinks of their relationship.
Justin and Solomon go to great lengths to conceal their relationship. They spend weekends together off-campus in Justin’s apartment in New York. In one of “Playing in the Dark”’s most poignant scenes, Justin and Solomon discuss whom they will take as dates to an upcoming formal dance. Justin announces that he will bring another gay man: “I want to ask someone who will hold my hand,” he tells Solomon. Ever fearful of his roommates’ judgment, Solomon plans to bring a cute international student—a female.
As it turns out, Justin and Solomon’s fear of what others think is unfounded. When Justin comes out to his father, he responds with a shrug. Solomon’s roommates react with similar indifference when they overhear Solomon and Justin discussing their relationship.
“Playing in the Dark” is not simply a story about two young men’s struggle to come to terms with their sexuality. Even after they come out, Justin and Solomon find other obstacles that prevent them from being happy together. One of these obstacles is class; at the beginning of the play, Solomon calls Justin a “snot-nosed preppy white boy.” Later, he reveals that part of his attraction to Justin is Justin’s money: “I love you for what you are and what you have,” Solomon tells Justin. “You have the American Dream and I don’t.” Another obstacle is race; when Justin’s father meets Solomon, he exclaims: “But he’s black!”
Nor does Sullivan follow all the rules he has learned about theater in his time at Princeton. In Daphne Brooks’ English seminar “Performance and the Black Body,” Sullivan studied minstrel shows and discovered what he calls “a novel way to look at things.” The posters for “Playing in the Dark” call the play “a multi-media minstrel dramedy.” In fact, “Playing in the Dark” re-envisions the minstrel show. Instead of white actors playing black characters, Sullivan uses females to play males. The cast includes three female actors in male roles. One is Catherine Cushenberry, who plays “Solomon on film,” an alter ego who appears both on film and in person on stage. “Solomon on stage” represents Solomon’s double consciousness and highlights the themes of the play. “If you’re going to play in the dark, you’re going to have to learn to love the dark,” he (she?) tells the audience.
In addition to Cushenberry, Sullivan cast two females, Nicki Chandriss and Julia Cain, as Solomon’s roommates. They deliver such chauvinistic lines as “How to Get Ass 102” and, in reference to Solomon’s formal date, “She doesn’t speak much English, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“It is interesting to see females speaking such ‘male’ lines,” says Sullivan.
Asked if he sees a minstrel quality to a heterosexual man’s writing a play about a gay couple, Sullivan (who is straight) replies, “Yeah, but I try not to think about it.” He adds that Justin and Solomon are the only non-minstrel characters in the play. This is another way that Sullivan has turned the minstrel show on its head; he caricatures “majorities” instead of minorities. “I made the Princeton WASP a stereotype, and I made the gay characters non-stereotyped,” Sullivan explains.
Solomon’s roommates embody the white male frat boy stereotype. They first enter the stage with the Flaming Lips’ “Fight Test” blasting on the speakers, then launch into a rap that includes such statements as “That’s why we hate black people” and “We just rule the world.” As Sullivan shows us, however, this bravado is masking deeper feelings of inadequacy. Before the formal, one roommate declares triumphantly, “Tonight we will score!” On Sunday afternoon, however, each one admits that he did not in fact score, and they ask Solomon for stories about his conquest. “We’re living vicariously through you,” they exclaim. “Sometimes you have to cover up the truth with blankets of lies.”
It is not hard to see that through Solomon’s roommates, Sullivan is making a critique of the dominant social culture at Princeton. Although the play never explicitly says what school the characters attend, “Playing in the Dark” includes unmistakable marks of Princeton: one of Solomon’s roommates has a large “P” painted on his chest, and the characters’ phone numbers are constructed according to the familiar model of “6” plus four digits.
“What I’ve watched at Princeton is diffused in this play,” admits Sullivan. He adds that he has noticed, “how depressed some people are here…They have a big smile on their faces, but it’s a smile covering up so much pain.”