Powerful ‘Launch Prize’ Explores Racial Politics (4.5 Stars)

by Mike Hoban


‘The Launch Prize’ – Written by MJ Halberstadt; Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene; Scenic Design and Properties by Ryan Bates; Costume Design by Esme Allen; Lighting Design by Stephen Petrilli; Sound Design by Skylar Burks. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston through March 20th.


Those of us who sit back and (quite correctly) react with righteous indignation as Donald Trump unloads his latest racist, xenophobic, sexist rant for his fawning supporters (much to the delight of the networks) might want to take a look at some of our own thinking before that moral superiority kicks into overdrive. Because while it may be easy to revile Trump for his atrocious comments about Muslims, Latinos and African Americans, aren’t most of us (except small children, who haven’t yet learned), conditioned to default to some form of stereotyping when considering another person’s ethnicity, culture, religion, politics or even musical tastes? And while it may be disconcerting when someone else reduces us to a cultural stereotype, most of us will revert to doing it to others with barely a thought of the impact it might be having on that person.


Which is exactly the point being made by ‘The Launch Prize’, the thought-provoking and entertaining Bridge Rep production now premiering at the BCA. Playwright M.J. Halberstadt has assembled a group of four ethnically diverse art school graduate students who, while setting up a gallery to display their MFA theses, await the decision as to who among them will win the coveted “Launch Prize” – a year-long, all expenses paid trip to expand their artistic vision. The verdict lies in an envelope that the students have sworn not to open until their advisor arrives, which sets the stage for an exchange of ideas on race and gender politics that quickly devolves into heated arguments and mudslinging – like most American political discussions.


But what separates Halberstadt’s work from a discussion on say, talk radio or cable news, is that the dialogue is actually intelligent and thoughtful (at least until the anger removes reason and the gloves come off) and is delivered by people of color instead of talking heads, but interestingly enough, still ends up sounding like the same stereotyping you’d hear from the “less-enlightened”. There’s Michelle (Angela K. Thomas), the African-American woman (who also happens to be beautiful, which can’t be overlooked in the gender equation) who is engaged to a white doctor; Kim (Katharine Chen Lerner), a Chinese-American who signs her artwork with the moniker of “Tuesday Last” because she doesn’t want to be known as an “Asian-American artist”; Sebastian Peters (Bari Robinson), the half-white, half-Mexican guy, who despite his talent, is more concerned with the dollars than the artwork; and Austin O’Reilly (John  Tracey), the token white boy.


Watching people of color accuse each other of favored status is somewhere between ironic and disturbing, and the playwright makes some intelligent arguments that may be difficult for some to fit into an idealized way of looking at their own thinking, truth notwithstanding. So when it is pointed out that the last 10 winners of the Launch Prize have been minorities, Angela asks innocently asks “does correlation imply causality?” as if the possibility were far-fetched. There’s also a terrific scene that answers the question, “How Far is Too Far?” when pushing the race envelope when joking amongst friends. After being taunted as “privileged” and “Wonder Bread” by his fellow art students, Austin is encouraged to turn the tables on them, and while his first attempts would only offend the overly politically correct, the final scorcher (the Asian equivalent of the N-Bomb) clearly crosses into the category of “offensive” and his friends unload on him.


The playwright uses a clever plot device to show us what the reaction would be to each of the students winning, and each vignette serves to flesh out the individual characters more fully. There’s a subplot about two of the students withholding the news that they’re romantically involved from their friends that doesn’t add much to the narrative, but as new works go, this one’s a winner. The performances by the cast are uniformly solid, and if you’re looking for an intelligent discussion of racial politics (with a few laughs thrown in as well), this is a good take. Sometimes the sign of good work is the discussions that follow the play, and like the Huntington’s “Disgraced” earlier this season, this one will leave you and your companions with something to talk about. For more info, go to: http://www.bostontheatrescene.com/season/iThe-Launch-Prizei/