There’s a racial epithet in Olney Theatre’s production of playwright Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission,” a word so ugly it’s best not spoken. So in rehearsals, the cast has come up with a way not to say it too often: They sub in the name of he-who-must-not-be-named in the Harry Potter series of books.
“We’ve taken to calling the word ‘Voldemort’ now,” says actress Kellee Knighten Hough. “You don’t want to get too comfortable with [the word].”
The word is spoken by Danny (Frank De Julio), a playwright who has written a superb play about a black alcoholic mother and her son, who live in the projects. But because Danny is a gay white man and doesn’t think he will be taken seriously as the author, he submits the play under a different name: Shaleeha G’ntamobi. When the play is produced, he hires Emilie (Knighten Hough) to stand in for him in rehearsals as the playwright, but her opinions about his play’s authenticity and his dismissiveness toward her lead to an inevitable conflict.
“Words are just words. They’re only a weapon when you load the gun,’ ” Knighten Hough says, paraphrasing a line from the play (her character also uses an epithet for gay men). “In that scene, we are completely loading the gun. What we say is meant to hurt, and meant to be that weapon.”
As the cast’s only black actor, Knighten Hough was prepared for the first time they used the epithet. “In the moment, I have to allow that word to affect me and not affect me. I have to allow it to be what it is in this world when we’re on the stage, and know that I leave that world behind when I walk out the door,” she says. “Me and the person who has to say those words, we always joke that at the end we’ll have to come out and hug and say, ‘We’re friends in real life.’ ”
“The Submission” takes on a lot of tough topics inside and outside of the theater world: discrimination, stereotypes, honesty, validation-seeking and political correctness. It’s also a play about the difficulty of getting a play produced, especially because minorities are underrepresented in the industry. It has been a conversation-starter for the cast, which has been sharing its own experiences.
“We unpacked a lot of things the first two days of rehearsal,” Knighten Hough says. “I think it made [it] better for us as a cast, and as people. Some of the things that Jeff Talbott wrote in the play as comic relief . . . have actually happened to me as a black woman.”
One example is a quip about a “Blony” — a black Tony Award. Knighten Hough recalled when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Academy Awards in 2002 and she heard an acquaintance referring to it as a “Blacademy Award.”
“I was like, ‘Aahhh, stop it, that’s not funny,’ ” she recalls. “It tarnishes it, like it’s not a real Academy Award.”
It’s teachable moments like these that Knighten Hough hopes will emerge from the play.
“What we do onstage, what we write, we say — it matters, and it has the power to help and to harm.”
Through June 9 at Olney Theatre,
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. 301-924-3400. www.olneytheatre.org. $32.50-$63.