'Buzzer' rings twice


Tracey Scott Wilson’s tragicomedy returns with a revised script on a new stage. What can we learn by watching a play’s evolution?

Déjà vu. Pillsbury House Theater’s smash hit Buzzer had its world première last year. Tracey Scott Wilson’s tragicomedy encompassing issues of race, class, gender, addiction and gentrification had sold-out audiences in 2012. It’s the story of young black Harvard law graduate Jackson and his white girlfriend Suzy moving back to his old neighborhood, accompanied by his white friend Don, a recovering addict. The play wowed viewers by juggling social issues along with an excellent plot of a sort-of love triangle. Buzzer has been revamped at The Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, with the same all-star cast (Namir Smallwood, Sarah Richardson and Hugh Kennedy) and director (Marion McClinton), but with changes made to the script.

Buzzer coming to the Guthrie is exciting. A completely different audience has a chance to see a play so important to the Pillsbury House community, the theater that already graced the Dowling Studio with The Brother’s Size earlier this year. The Guthrie has gotten a hard time for this year’s season, with a male whitewash in its Wurtele Thrust and McGuire Proscenium stages, but the Dowling Studio is doing well on the diversity front, welcoming new plays – by people of color, to boot.

Buzzer is experiencing a necessary stage of a new play: rewriting. Tracey Scott Wilson revised her play from its 2012 version to the 2013 Guthrie version. Rohan Preston’s review described the re-write as “sharper, funnier and deeper.” Those adjectives need some unpacking. If Preston means the transitions were sharper, he is correct: Buzzer was much smoother with lightning fast transitions and subtle light design resolved by director Marion McClinton. But in the previous iteration of Buzzer, Don was a more prominent character. He had at least two monologues that were cut addressing his background with addiction and memories of Jackson. These were not changes I enjoyed, but they did cut down the overall run time. Buzzer also had a comedic makeover, turning more of its moments of tension to moments of absurdity.

But is the play “deeper”? Perhaps Buzzer is deeper in character development and the relationships between the characters, but not necessarily on issues of race. For example, Buzzer’s first performance had a larger emphasis on the ambiguity of the characters’ feelings on race, which was more interesting than their academic knowledge of white privilege in this current version.

Wilson’s changes were subtle, save for her ending. 2012 Buzzer left Suzy and Don letting in a white tenant of their building who forgot his keys, while passively not noticing a young black man who had clearly (to the audience) also forgotten his keys. 2013 Buzzer is much more precise: Don tells a story to Suzy about a young man in the neighborhood who murdered a 17-year-old model because she was naïve and let him into her building; after that story, Suzy lets in a familiar white tenant, but sharply closes the door on a young black man trying to get in the building. Wilson complicated Suzy’s character more in this action than any of her others in the play, and made more obvious her racial prejudices.

Rewriting a script for production is an interesting concept. Who gives feedback to the playwright? What does it mean to have premiered Buzzer at The Pillsbury House, and a second iteration at the Guthrie? What does it mean to have this re-written script for the Guthrie’s particular audience, whose average member is a white woman in her 60s? How is it different?

Having seen both versions of Buzzer, I was surprised at the similarity in the script. Except for the drastically different ending, the changes were subtle. Was the whole point of the second version of Buzzer to rewrite for the ending, to be onstage at the Guthrie, or just simply to allow more audiences to see the play? More specifically, was it so audiences of more “mainstream” theater, like the Guthrie, could watch a play and begin a conversation about race, class and gentrification?

Whatever the reason, Buzzer is a must-see performance this year. Besides beginning a conversation about what it means to rewrite and restage a play, Buzzer raises hundreds of questions about race, adultery, gender, class, addiction and gentrification, to name a few.