Culture | Tragedy with a sprinkle of humour

Race, class, and food for thought in Superior Donuts

Don’t let the title fool you – Superior Donuts, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts in 2008, is not the feel-good comedy you would expect from something named after a comfort food. Set in the eponymous donut shop of Chicago’s developing Uptown neighbourhood, the play tells the story of shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski and his struggle to salvage his business after a vandal broke in and graffitied “Pussy” on the wall behind the counter.

The rendition by McGill’s Players’ Theatre, directed by Clay Walsh, successfully balanced the play’s heavy subject matter with light scenes of comic relief, despite the drama’s overall mournful tone. However, the audience becomes disoriented as they are constantly pulled between these two extremes: is this a comedy or a tragedy? The setting seems to suggest that it should be a comedy – the retro donut shop reminiscent of vintage sitcoms, with regular customers that never fail to amuse with their obvious social awkwardness.

However, despite chuckling at the offhand remarks made by Franco (the young new employee of Superior Donuts) I was left with a sinking despair at the intermission and after the play. Feeling betrayed by the play’s unexpected darkness, it became clear to me that Superior Donuts, unlike regular donuts, was not meant to make you feel good. In fact, the play is a dark comedy that explores not only themes of loss and friendship, but also the underlying systems of oppression that drive the characters into dilemmas where they must pit their dreams against reality.

The rendition by McGill’s Players’ Theatre, directed by Clay Walsh, successfully balanced the play’s heavy subject matter with light scenes of comic relief, despite the drama’s overall mournful tone.

Jonathan Vanderzon played Arthur, the middle-aged donut master of Polish descent who has experienced a series of hardships, leading him to expect nothing but failure. As a disillusioned divorcee whose estranged wife died of cancer after their separation, he is too emotionally numb to notice that a young police officer, Randy Osteen (played by Francesca Scotti-Goetz) has fallen in love with him. A young Black man named Franco Wicks (played by Sory Ibrahim Kaboré) charms Arthur into offering him a much-needed job at the shop, and proceeds to attempt to rectify both Arthur’s romantic life and his failing business.

The well-spoken Franco boldly urges Arthur to update the establishment by playing lively music and offering healthy menu options, citing the ‘Whole Foods mentality‘ that is emerging in the working-class neighbourhood as a result of gentrification. Unfortunately, like his donut shop, Arthur is stuck in the past and takes offence at Franco’s suggestions, yelling, “I’m the owner!” in a tense moment, shredding any illusion that this play is a simple comedy. Franco attempts to talk Arthur out of his pessimism, to no avail. Not only does Arthur doubt change will benefit his shop but he also resists change in general, insisting on keeping his hair long, and his clothes as disheveled as his store.

Franco is a ray of hope in every sense of the term. He brings humour to the table with his witty comebacks to Arthur and serves up some ambition to the audience as he presents him with a battered manuscript. It is for his Great American Novel about a Black man who tries to make it big in the States. Even Arthur, a secret literature buff, is blown away by the young man’s talent and urges him to show the book to a publisher. After Arthur leaves the scene, however, two Italian mafiosos who describe themselves as Franco’s ‘friends’ come to extort Franco for the $16,000 he owed them in gambling money. The boss Luther Flynn (played by Thomas Fix) gives him an ultimatum: have the money by next week or suffer the consequences. Arthur arrives just in time to see them leaving but Franco refuses to reveal their identity.

The play is a dark comedy that explores not only themes of loss and friendship, but also the underlying systems of oppression that drive the characters into dilemmas where they must pit their dreams against reality.

The downward spiral begins. When Franco begins to get uncomfortably familiar with Arthur by asking what happened to his wife, Arthur gives him the cold shoulder, saying that he was only paid to work, not to talk, and this rupture marks the end of Franco’s optimism. One week later, Arthur learns that Franco has been hospitalized because two men broke his fingers and destroyed his precious manuscript. Arthur ultimately acquits Franco’s debt out of his own pocket, planning to redeem his friendship with Franco after the latter exits the hospital. But when Franco returns to the donut shop, he is quiet and withdrawn because his dream was destroyed along with his novel.

As the play descends into a series of tragic events, the hopeless circumstances faced by the main characters appear to be consequences not of their own actions – but of a society built upon racial discrimination. As Franco strives toward the so-called ‘American dream,’ systemic oppression is evident as he is forced to drop out of school and resort to working in a donut shop to support his mother and sisters who are living on food stamps.

However, despite acknowledging these intersections of racism and classism and implicitly critiquing capitalism, the play fails to interrogate its own perpetuation of these systemic issues. Franco’s character plays upon racial stereotypes: he is portrayed as an ‘entertainer,’ playing the light-hearted, funny, and extroverted Black friend to Arthur. Similarly, the Black police officer is depicted as frivolous and irrational when he is berated for dressing up as various fictional characters at comic book conventions. Even Arthur’s character relies on the trope of ‘Polish hopelessness’ – a common and explicit theme in his many soliloquies – through his introverted, awkward, pessimistic, and old-fashioned depiction.

The hopeless circumstances faced by the main characters appear to be consequences not of their own actions – but of a society built upon racial discrimination.

The play’s highly problematic conclusion continues to reinforce the hierarchy it attempts to critique. A now-optimistic Arthur pays off Franco, who has shifted from stereotypically ‘entertaining’ to hopeless, enacting the white-saviour narrative. In a twist of events, Franco rejects Arthur’s help, insisting that he “doesn’t want no handouts” as an acknowledgment of the same structural forces that cornered him into his current servitude.

Overall, the actors portrayed their characters very effectively, especially Jonathan Vanderzon, who infused Arthur’s soliloquies with just the right amount of nostalgia to convey the spirit of a rebellious young man in a middle-aged body. Another highlight was Lady Boyle (played by Gretel Kahn), the eccentric, colourfully-dressed elderly lady who speaks too loudly and can make Arthur smile like nobody else. Kaboré was delightfully energetic and playful as Franco, radiating hope – at least in the beginning – and representing the beating heart of the plot.

Despite acknowledging these intersections of racism and classism and implicitly critiquing capitalism, the play fails to interrogate its own perpetuation of these systemic issues.

However, Franco and Arthur’s dialogues seemed a little forced at times – though this is perhaps intentional given that Arthur is supposed to be an awkward character. The dynamic between Arthur and Lady Boyle was the most natural one. In general, all the other characters seemed to have little rapport with each other, resulting in slightly awkward stage dialogues in which it seemed more like the characters were waiting for each other’s turn to speak rather than having a natural conversation.

Despite my initial disappointment that the play was not the comedy I expected it to be, the tragic elements provided insight into the harsh conditions faced by Chicago’s immigrant and racialized working class. After the play ended, the audience was left wondering: how can hope – embodied by Franco Wicks – survive, when society is building barriers between him and his dream? Judging by the solemn ending, the story line seems to suggest that hope cannot survive as long as society revolves around structural violence, despite Arthur’s hopeful recitation of the catchphrase that “America will be.” The deliciously good acting and witty repartees will leave you with a bitter aftertaste once you realize that this play is a grim but accurate depiction of the tragedy of a boy who fails to make it big due to the class-based and racial barriers plaguing the country he once idealized.


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