By Grayson Lazarus
The impact of one’s developmental environment is substantive, culturally relevant, and can make for a moving story. Proof of this can be found in “Moonlight”, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture only a month ago and reminded audiences that contemporary race commentary does not need to preach. Unfortunately, “Token” suffers from poor timing, especially considering both works deal with nearly identical themes. In most cases, the problem with “Token” is not with the content, but with the delivery.
“Token” is a one-act play about Troy, a black man who recalls a series of seven developmental moments that he considers definitive to his upbringing. These include playing video games, engaging with kids on a playground, and facing racism in a class when talking about a personal hero. By the end of the play, however, the importance of these events are not made clear, as the impact of these scenes are not shown on the protagonist. For the most part, the character presented in the framing device does not go through any major change. Troy appears to be the same person when he is a child as he is when he’s old enough to manage his own business.
As a result, several scenes function as little more than basic seminars on what might be considered racist. The most notable example can be found in the fifth scene, which takes place in a college dorm and features two black friends lecturing their white friend on privilege. It’s a narratively irrelevant scene that stops the play dead in its tracks as it lectures all white audience members, regardless of political persuasion, on what is obviously the writer’s definition of entitlement, while giving all non-white audience members permission to nod their heads in approval.
Devin Douglas, the playwright, and his honorable intentions are occasionally quelched by his refusal to allow his main character to be more than a blank slate. Admitting to its autobiographical nature in the playbill, Douglas writes Troy as being a little more than “a guy” who goes through a series of injustices that one can only assume were supposed to impact his future self. He has no personality other than he likes what the playwright’s note calls the “nerdier elements of pop culture”. This character is such a simple and basically written protagonist that his occasionally inappropriate actions are not condemned for the sake of losing investment in his character. During the third scene, Troy is called a series of insulting slurs and inappropriately instigated by his fellow classmate. In response, Troy assaults him. From this moment on, it became difficult to completely empathize with the character. The reaction of the audience seemed as if they were not as unimpressed by this moment.
The most thematically impressive moment is presented during the seventh and final scene. Troy, reflecting on his life and his past experiences, tells a black woman that he is thankful for his upbringing and heavily implies that he is thankful for the prejudice he has faced. Without it, he would not be the person he is, and he truly is proud of who he is. This moment is the only time that the impact of an experience can be seen on the main character. It is a genuinely excellent thought to conclude a play that centers on race; a positive note, but not a complacent one.