Theater Review: “The Launch Prize” — A Powerful Examination of Art, Competition, and Racism

MJ Halberstandt’s script is at its strongest when his characters, and how they connect with each other, are the focus.

The Launch Prize by MJ Halberstadt. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at The Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through March 20.

Photo: Andrew Brilliant

A scene from “The Launch Prize.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant.

By Jess Viator

The Launch Prize captures the moment when four near-graduates in a Fine Arts MFA program discover that one of them has won a coveted grant, the kind that accelerates an artist’s career. The winner/loser scenario is routine enough, but in this case there is a complication: Michelle (Angela Thomas) is a black woman, Kim (Katherine Cher Lerner) is a first generation Chinese American woman, Sebastian (Bari Robinson) is half Mexican, half white man, and Austin (John Tracey) is a white man. This set-up raises polemical expectations, but The Launch Prize is neither a treatise on diversity or a rant against “PC culture”; it is not about who “would” win versus who “should” win, although the text explores that idea. The dramatic crux of the show revolves around what this contest does to relationships; what happens to friends when their identities are scrutinized and their talent doubted by the very people who have become like family?

The set design by Ryan Bates is streamlined, but effectively utilizes the performance space in such a way that it becomes integral to the story. The “stage” is simply a nondescript room, with hardwood floors and tall ceilings. The audience is situated on three sides of the space: the playing area moves about — from the fourth side and the middle of the floor to several points around the room. Though the space does not look like a traditional stage, it does accurately evoke the play’s setting: an exhibition room in an art gallery. There are canvasses all around, hung in mid-air, on easels, stacked on the floor — all of them painted via a capital-M-Minimalist style, using primary colors and simple lines. There are metal stools, a cart filled with art supplies and practical tools; in the center of the floor there is a wooden crate. Director Tiffany Nichole Greene makes excellent use of the geometrics of the space: four different possibilities are explored in the play, and Greene makes sure that the audience is offered four different perspectives on the action.

We meet the four friends setting up exhibitions for their final projects. They each get a wall in the room to display their art. Each of the students stakes out his or her territory with tape; in a nice directorial touch, these territorial claims come to serve as a metaphor for the conflicted stances in the heated discussion to come. Letters addressed to the students’ advisor arrive — three small, plain envelopes and one telltale large envelope — from the Launch Prize committee. As the young artists debate whether they should open the mail or not, we learn something about their personalities, their motivations as artists, their relationships with each other, and what each will do if one of them wins the Launch Prize money. Once the issue of race and culture is dropped into the conversation, the tension increases dramatically.

Sebastian is the instigator; he points out that, in the past 10 years, the Launch Prize has primarily been awarded to people of color (“diversity is trendy!”). He argues that Michelle, because she proudly embraces her race and her collection consists of self portraits, has the edge. Michelle denies that her value as an artist is connected to politics, and maintains that she has worked incredibly hard. If she wins the award it will be because of her talent and her excellent proposal. Kim swings wildly in the opposite direction; she has adopted the pseudonym of Tuesday Last in order to erase traces of her gender and race — if she wins or loses, she will know for certain that the decision was based on judgments based on merit. Austin is the outsider; he avoids the discussion on race until he is officially invited to participate by the others — and he immediately makes some verbal missteps. He is a good, well-intensioned person who genuinely cares about his friends. But he does not grasp the powerful challenges that his comrades must constantly face: either the social pressures to be the immaculate representation of a specific culture or the fits of self-doubt that this responsibility inevitably generate.

MJ Halberstandt’s script is at its strongest when his characters, and how they connect with each other, are the focus. Each of the Bridge Rep cast members has imbued his or her character with a distinct personality and motivation. These are detailed portraits of contemporary young people trying to make their way in the world. The script neatly eliminates any extraneous information and wisely levels the playing field; the audience sees that these students are equally talented, educated, savvy, and hard-working. Each deserves a “Launch Prize.” This frees the script  to explore each character’s connection with his or her racial and cultural identity, to examine a variety of attitudes toward race, competition, and self-image.

When The Launch Prize concentrates on how each of the characters has been shaped by racism, the conflicts among the students become fascinating, even touching. When the dialogue veers off into familiar diatribes, the play feels as preachy and heavy-handed as the fly-off-the-handle comments section for any mainstream media article about the difficulty of race relations. The points made here are relevant and astute, but the onslaught of raised voices and hurt feelings is relentless, and the audience is given no time to process them. We are left to sit there, patiently weathering a storm.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t matter who wins the Launch Prize, the four friends’ relationships are damaged, irreparably. The script, as well as the production’s directorial choices, imply that the carnage is inevitable. Although this is the story of what happens to four people in a particular situation, the universal implications of their breakdown are saddening. Are interracial relationships doomed once serious conflicts arise? Are most of us incapable of listening and empathizing with each other’s experiences? Can we not have honest and respectful discussions about race, ranging from the personal to the political, without charges and counter-charges blowing up in our faces? In this sense, The Launch Prize accurately reflects the confusions of real life: we’re working on it, but we’re not there, yet.

Jess Viator is an emerging independent theater director, an occasional stage manager, and a lapsed playwright. She has a BA in theater performance, and recently completed a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Dundee in Scotland.

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