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Spinning Into Butter is a play about racism, and it isn't what you might expect.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman set Spinning Into Butter not in her native Alabama but in a tiny college town in Vermont. The characters are college administrators, professors and students who all vow their commitment to fostering diversity.

And there's not a black person on stage.

Yet, director Brenda Sparks says, "It's a very serious comedy about racism.

"When people think about racism, they think about victims and perpetrators. They think of things as being, well, black and white. But there's a lot of gray in the middle."

Bringing American Stage's edgiest play of the season to life has been a challenge, Sparks says. For one thing, at first glance the play could strike Southern audiences as a simplistic view of race problems.

Spinning Into Butter's main character, Sarah Daniels, is the recently hired dean of students at a small liberal arts college. When one of the handful of black students on campus becomes the victim of racial harassment, Sarah finds herself dealing with a situation that quickly whirls out of control _ and forces her to confront hidden feelings of her own.

The play's title comes from the old story of Little Black Sambo, the child who escaped from a pack of hungry tigers by tossing each of them an item of his new clothes, leaving the preening, squabbling tigers to chase each other until they melted into a pool of butter.

Sparks says she knew that the play's academic world of insistently politically correct language might allow audience members to distance themselves from the problems the play deals with. "So I thought, "Let's start with that illusion, this white world so far removed from Southern audiences, and see what happens when that breaks apart.' "

Abigail Hart Gray's set design for Spinning Into Butter is part of the plan to fracture those boundaries. The single set is a tastefully sterile academic's office with high white walls and black furniture, separated from the audience by clear sliding panels.

"The driving force behind the set design is to make explicit these issues," Sparks says. "At the beginning they're in a world that is neatly encased and separate from our world. But as the play goes on, that begins to break apart."

For Julie Rowe, who plays Sarah, breaking it apart was one of her challenges.

"Sarah is very earnest about wanting to make the world better. She wants to help, she wants to make a difference," Rowe says.

But that earnest character confronts her own suppressed racism in a scathing second-act confession. "At first I was afraid to say these things in front of God and everybody," Rowe says.

As the play progresses, Sarah leaves the confines of the set and approaches the audience. During rehearsal, Sparks says, "Julie was talking upstage, and I had to tell her, "Come down here.' And that's when she started to cave. She said, "Don't make me say these things.' "

Rowe, who was last seen at American Stage as Josie Hogan in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten, says, "I drew on the stamina of that role, because this is a bit of a marathon." Sarah is onstage in almost every scene.

And, she says, "I'm just grateful we had Brenda on board."

Sparks and Rowe have worked together on challenging comic material before. Sparks directed Rowe in a 2001 production of David Sedaris' Season's Greetings at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville.

Rowe says the one-woman show is "far darker than Santaland Diaries," another Sedaris play, which American Stage presented in December.

Season's Greetings is about a suburban homemaker writing her family's holiday letter after a very bad year. "And it turns out she may have killed her grandchild," Rowe says.

"It was treacherous waters. I learned about keeping a comedy afloat when there are such weighty issues at stake."

The comedy in Spinning Into Butter, Sparks says, "is not cheap, it is well-earned. The humor gives us breaks that allow us to talk about the issues. Without the humor, we'd be less likely to talk about it."

Rebecca Gilman, the award-winning playwright of Spinning Into Butter, specializes in darkly comic plays. When she was 18, she wrote Always Open, about a group of doughnut shop employees who plot to suffocate their manager in a vat of dough.

Not all of Gilman's plays are comic, but all deal with controversial subject matter. The first to draw wide attention was The Glory of Living, which premiered in 1997 in Chicago. Despite (or because of) its shocking subject matter _ child abuse, sexual deviance and a 15-year-old serial killer _ the play catapulted her into the ranks of hot young playwrights. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002.

Spinning Into Butter debuted in 1999, winning several awards and becoming Gilman's first play to receive a major New York production. The Crime of the Century, based on the notorious 1966 murder of eight Chicago student nurses by Richard Speck, also debuted in 1999.

In 2000, Boy Meets Girl, about a blind date turned stalker, was named best play of the year by Time magazine.

Gilman's latest play, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, is about an artist who is admitted to a psychiatric hospital after her work is trashed by critics. It opens in London in March, with Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) in the lead role.

In Spinning Into Butter, Gilman focuses on characters who would never consider themselves racist. Sparks says, "On my first reading, I was not drawn to the play. I thought it was too easy" to see the self-satisfied academics as bad guys.

"What I soon learned was that it wasn't that clear-cut. The ultimate challenge was to approach it in ways that make it less clear. They're not all wrong."

For the play to hit home, she says, empathy with Sarah's character is essential. Dealing with an alcoholic mother and a collapsed romance, an outsider on a tightly knit campus, she is a woman whose world already is coming apart when the racial incidents begin.

Sparks says, "When Sarah comes out without artifice and can admit to what is hers, then the audience can look at her and say, "I do that, too.' "

One of the questions the play asks is what political correctness actually has accomplished in terms of ending racism, she says.

"That's not to say that the PC movement, which is by definition stifling, didn't have an effect on us. Any movement where correctness is part of the title makes you worry."

As rehearsals began, Sparks and the cast "spent one whole day talking about racism. At first we would all couch things in the right language, use the best terms. By the end of the day, it was, "Here's the deal. Sometimes I think these things, too.' "

_ Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435.

Theater preview

Spinning Into Butter by Rebecca Gilman opens tonight and continues through Feb. 22 at American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no matinee Jan. 31), 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. $22-$32. (727) 823-7529.Note: Contains strong language and mature themes.