“Baltimore” is an exploration of historical trauma and the impact of racist denial

A scene from Intrepid Theatre Lab's "Baltimore." [Photo by Yarcenia Garcia.]

Does calling offensive behavior “a joke” detract from degradation inflicted at someone’s expense? Is humor usually a deflection from assessing our insecurities? Can people thrive without fully embracing parts of themselves and their histories?

Leave it to a handful of freshmen eager to establish themselves at a small liberal arts college to consider these questions when brought together by a classmate’s racist portrayal of a Black freshman circulating on social media.

Dealing with many of the themes depicted in the film-turned-TV-series “Dear White People, “Baltimore” handles the issues through protagonist Shelby Wilson (Zemmoia Bryant), a 20 year-old Black woman who initially shields herself from her leadership role as a resident assistant in response to one freshman’s lack of remorse in perpetuating racism on campus. Wilson, a sports medicine major who lost her job in the athletics department, puts on blinders with the excuse of improving her resume throughout the play.

White freshman Fiona, played by Maggie Hodson, is the perpetrator of the racist post. Dating a Black guy and using Ebonics once in a while, Fiona unconvincingly claims to understand Black experiences. Nicknamed “Snowball” as a child for her white hair, she equates childhood teasing with racism over her attempt to “have a joke” at peer Alyssa’s (Breanna Thornton) expense.

Intrepid Theatre Lab co-founder and “Baltimore” director Greg Foro made space for diverse perspectives to guide this production by initiating a cast conversation exploring writer Kirsten Greenidge’s intentions for production before rehearsals began. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement–with references to the Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Ferguson protests–”Baltimore” calls for deep critical analysis in character studies.

Greenidge’s production, commissioned by the Big Ten Theatre Consortium in an effort to create more female leads, peels back tiers of stereotypes and personal experiences to reveal individual students of color who want to be seen completely. Not seen for their aspirations or accomplishments. Not seen for race or family ties. But seen completely.

Driven by dialogue, there is nothing flashy about “Baltimore.” It may even be irksome for folks who want to escape from reality and be entertained. The production requires emotional investment.

As a white man directing a play written by an African American woman, Foro does well to cast Black actress Donna Marie–founder of TOASTCO (Telling Our Authentic Stories Theatre Company)–as Dean Hernandez, a part originally written for a man. Donna Marie’s perspective was an invaluable resource for the cast during the early stages of the production, Foro says.

The cast of Intrepid Theatre Lab’s “Baltimore.” [Photo by Yarcenia Garcia.]

For a production aiming to provoke conversations on perspective-taking, the intersections of identity and refusal to address racial biases masquerading as insolence, just one subpar actor could have prevented the audience from accessing these nuanced concepts.

A standout performance from Marie endears Dean Hernandez to the viewer as both convincingly equanimous and critically responsive in encouraging Shelby to examine her responsibility to her community in the midst of racial tension. Marie’s performance is also significant as live theatre in Sacramento often lacks representation of Black, Latina women.

“Baltimore” is a well written play with moments of comedic relief to bring levity to a difficult topic. Skilled acting from the young Zemmoia Bryant urges us to look past Shelby’s seemingly selfish avoidance of accountability in handling relationships with the freshmen, the dean and even her best friend Grace (Grace Matayoshi). We ultimately see a person struggling to embrace the intricacies of Blackness and womanhood.

A scene from Intrepid Theatre Lab’s “Baltimore.” [Photo by Yarcenia Garcia.]

While Shelby initially believes she lives in a “post-racial society,” her denial may be viewed as a byproduct of societally conditioned self-loathing, which is overshadowed at first by her happy-go-lucky demeanor. Still, it would be lazy to deem her dismissive and apathetic. Painful degradation has taught her family (and herself), through transmission, to hide negative emotions as a self-preservation mechanism. Internal conflict ensues.

“Baltimore” is an exploration on what it means to examine the atrocities of history. It is much more than a critique on whether modern America has adequately condemned racism. It’s a cogent, unforgettable interweaving of narratives that compels the most disillusioned viewers to dust off the cobwebs of their families’ histories and confront how their realities have been shaped by coping mechanisms and the fear of being seen as inferior.

The play is a call for individuals to be agents of their own liberation through starting difficult conversations, and an invitation for the most hesitant among us to question how our personal biases have maintained the norm of white supremacy.

The viewer is left with no cut-and-dried resolution. Perhaps this is the play’s appeal. Black, Japanese, Latina and queer voices with distinct stories are finally celebrated as they push the audience to ponder identity as an open-ended spectrum.

Greenidge’s production leaves us wondering how much longer Black people will be expected to put their lives on hold to educate White friends and co-workers into seeing beyond themselves.

“Baltimore” runs from June 7-9th and June 14th-16th at Guild Theater. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. Tickets can be purchased at baltimore.brownpapertickets.com.


Claire White on Email
Claire White
Claire White
Claire White is a native Sacramentan who supports students with creative writing. She is involved in the local arts and media scene.