A 300-year-old scarred oak tree inspires a story exploring who we are and who we once were, personalizing racial prejudice and its consequences.
Utah has one of the highest percentages of whites in the nation, according to U.S. Census surveys. So is a play set in New Jersey which explores issues of race and racism relevant to Utahns?
“Culturally, in Utah it’s very relevant,” says Shawn Fisher, the playwright of “How to Make a Rope Swing.” The play had its world premiere in Utah in early February, opening to positive reviews and approving audiences.
Fisher explains that 50 years ago, racism was overt. The play looks at the “new racism” and how views on race have changed.
Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) describes the play this way: “300-year-old scarred oak tree inspires a story exploring who we are and who we once were, personalizing racial prejudice and its consequences.”
The rope swing reference potentially has multiple meanings and can be tied to the tree that was one of his inspirations for the story.
“I had come across a massive oak tree. On the side of the tree was a large, black scar, and I was told the scar was made when the slaves on the plantation would make fires for cooking. It was an interesting metaphor because the scar had gotten deeper and more closed over.”
One of the main characters was inspired by Fisher’s own grandmother who expressed some racist beliefs but, like the character Mrs. Wright (played by Jayne Luke), was challenged by societal progress. Over the course of the play, Mrs. Wright interacts with Arthur “Bo” Wells (played by Glenn Turner), an African-American janitor who forces Wright to face some of her prejudices.
Fisher says he wanted to use the play to ask: “How have the relationships evolved over generations?”
Utah was a good place to premiere the play because racism has permeated the culture in the state, he says. “We see it and hear it all the time.”
“Racism here, in fact, has been somewhat of a sanctioned thing, really embedded,” Fisher adds.
The play delves into how racism has been ingrained and how it has also been covered up. “It’s really just sort of a reflection of the evolution in the last 50 years or so,” according to the playwright.
Fisher is happy with the reception so far. He is also pleased with the “great collaboration” he had with Salt Lake Acting Company. “I think the actors and directors did a wonderful job with it.” The play is directed by Adrianne Moore.
“How to Build a Rope Swing” received the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award.
Shawn Fisher has written several plays and is currently an associate professor and head of the graduate program at Utah State University.
The play runs through March 3. Ticket prices are $15 to $38. Call 801-363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for performance times and more information.