According to Bay Street’s press release about Alan Fox’s world premiere of “Safe Space:” “Safe Space is set at an elite university and explores political correctness and the reaction to triggers on campus in America today. When a star African-American professor faces accusations of racism from a student, the head of the college must intervene, setting off an explosive chain of events where each of them must navigate an ever-changing minefield of identity, politics, ethics, and core beliefs.”
It’s also a search for the truth, which of course is always subjective, never objective. The cast of three — Rodney Richardson as the professor Marcus Wood, Mercedes Ruehl as the college president Judith Rose, and Sasha Diamond playing student Jenny Oshiro — dance around each other, each with their own truth to share and their own crosses to bear.
Much of the play revolves around individual interpretations of what is fair and right in a culture of intolerance but of course the answers aren’t so — to use an apropos phrase — black and white. According to Marcus’s opening lecture, where the audience is his students, it all began with the Guttenberg bible, when suddenly everyone could interpret God for themselves from their own book. “Nobody could agree on what God meant anymore, and all hell breaks loose,” he says. He is clearly an energetic, engaged professor, the kind to hold a student’s interest.
A complaint of racism is brought against Marcus, who is about to be tenured, during an alumni weekend where Judith is desperately trying to raise money for the hallowed university, and everyone — Marcus, Jenny, and Judith — is determined for things to go their way.
And this world premiere by Alan Fox, brilliantly brought to life by renowned director Jack O’Brien, is incredibly layered. “‘Triggered’ may be a word you laugh about at a dinner party, but it’s my reality,” Jenny says in one of many emotionally charged scenes. When both Marcus and Judith’s jobs are threatened, Marcus asks, “Where do they find someone who knows what it feels like to be everybody?” Where, indeed.
The play moves at lightning pace, and the choice to have the scene changes done by a multi-racial, almost robotic, group of young people adds to the tension and ambiance.
David Rockwell’s scenic design is simple yet descriptive, and has become the norm for Bay Street, the projections against the back add to the experience.
Is there any safe space that is all-inclusive? Or is re-segregation the only way for people to feel comfortable around their own people? It’s a difficult question (and there are many posed in this 90-minute play). “Safe Space” will have audience members discussing it long after the final curtain. Fox is said to still be working on rewrites, since this is the world premiere, so there were occasional line flubs, but it doesn’t detract from a work that will be timely moving forward.