Stage

A Selfish Focus Hamstrings Random Acts

Renata Hinrichs in Random Acts
Renata Hinrichs in Random Acts Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Every time Renata Hinrichs, a white girl, interacts with a Black person, something bad happens to her. She innocently tries to reach out and connect and she’s met with harm, physical or emotional.

It’s a troubling thing to walk out of a show with this as the main takeaway. Especially since Hinrichs, who wrote and stars in the one-woman autobiographical, Random Acts, intended the play to be about finding grace and kindness growing up in the chaos of civil rights era Chicago.

Problem is, Hinrichs not only centers herself as the only perspective in the play, she also does so mostly from the point of view of her grade school years, naturally the most self-centered moments of our lives. The result is a play about race that ends up being told exclusively by someone in a place of privilege explaining how the tensions between races affected her negatively.

Which would have been fine, even interesting, if Hinrichs had taken the time and care in her writing to acknowledge her limited gaze and truly examine the things that befell her. Instead, she gives us a one-sided story meant to be uplifting but landing hollow.

The show, a 4th Wall Theatre Company production, begins with Renata connecting on Facebook with her old high school prom date, a Black man named Willie. She explains the two never spoke again after the dance despite Renata’s smitten stance. So, when Willie accepts her friend invitation and wants to speak to her, Renata is hesitant but curious.

This somehow sets her off in memory of the time she and her family moved to the mixed-race south side of Chicago in the 1960s. The genesis of her interactions with black people, it’s supposed.

Hinrichs plays all the characters from her past. Herself as a young girl, her parents, teachers, and other church members as she saw them from her child-like perspective.

We meet her progressive Lutheran Pastor father and her clean-obsessed mother, concerned with being the perfect Pastor’s wife and making sure her kids behave.

The scenes with her family at home and in church are well performed, lightly comedic, and come with a side of righteousness as her father preaches about accepting everyone in the community equally.

But things turn more serious when Renata walks to kindergarten alone for the first time. Along the two-block route from her house, she meets a Black girl from her class and strikes up a conversation. An unwanted one it turns out, leaving Renata with more bruises than her ego.

It’s another Black schoolmate that saves her, but Renata never meets him. Instead, her father later tells her that the boy must be her guardian angel watching over her. This sets up for another uncomfortable scene later in the play during the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

When Renata learns that a Black boy has been murdered by a white off-duty cop, she worries not for the boy himself or his family. Rather she’s concerned that it might have been her guardian angel. Who will watch over me now, she worries?

Similarly, when a brick gets thrown through the window of the family’s house as protest to her father’s own civil rights efforts, Renata’s upset comes because the window broken was the one she used to look out of while daydreaming about dancing with Julie Andrews.

All of these situations and reactions, true as they may be, get left hanging in the air with no insight or examination. Not that the only way for a white person to talk about race is through liberal guilt or self-flagellation, but utterly ignoring that more should and could be said is an omission that leaves a bad taste.

When Renata and Willie do finally connect, we learn what happened on the night of the prom and once again, it’s framed as race unfairly leaving Renata out in the cold.

What we presume is a real letter of apology from Willie is read to us in the final moments of the play. Things he obviously needed to get off his chest. That’s fine. But it’s Renata’s reaction that once again irks. I forgive you; I was naïve to your plight, is her response to him.

We’d hope that after all we’ve witnessed, for once Renata wouldn’t make it about herself.

Some notes on the production itself, Director Jessi D. Hill and Joe Engler (Projections Design) have done a lovely job populating the play with images projected on the back wall to illustrate every scene. Never distracting but always atmospheric, the decision to pace the images calmly truly adds warmth and depth to the show.

Unfortunately, the sound design didn’t work as well. Recordings of Willie’s side of phone conversations with Renata are muddled and lost in the space, making it near impossible at times to understand what he’s saying.

Perhaps not everyone walked away as put off by the selfishness of Hinrichs narrative. Maybe some people even saw it as an example of reverse racism. Or just the story of a girl. Regardless, at the end of 80 minutes, we’re not left with much but a good performance of a play that hadn’t much of anything to say.

Random Acts continues through February 27 at 4th Wall Theatre, 1824 Spring Street, Studio 101. For more information, visit 4thwalltheatreco.com or call 832-767-4991. $25
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman