By Mehr Gunawardena
“Random Acts” by Renata Hinrichs is a racially charged performance that shines a light on the experiences of a white minister’s daughter confronting racism in 1960s Chicago. The performance begins with Ms. Hinrichs moving to the smooth sounds of the late sixties, twirling in the sweet scents of nostalgia as she begins to recount about her first boyfriend. She, the dancer and he, the quarterback—it was the perfect match. She reenacts her first interaction with Willy, sliding up and down the bench; she even shows us how her first kiss took place. She and Willy planned on going to the homecoming dance together. They even learned a dance move to do together: “the freak.” The big night arrived and Renata went to pick Willy up from his house. She was greeted with unexpected disapproval: “Willy! Willy! There is some white girl at the door!” At this moment Renata realized that her boyfriend of several months hadn’t told his mother about her, and that her being white was a problem. On the way to the dance, things were awkward, and they didn’t speak to one another. At the dance, Willy met up with his football teammates and she sat down alone. She didn’t see him for the rest of the night. The dance floor was segregated, and their interracial relationship had no place there.
Ms. Hinrichs then goes further back into her past, revealing her early childhood. Her father, a Lutheran minister, was assigned to the Grace Lutheran Church after his studies, and her family moved from Boston to Chicago. Renata was about 4 years old. The church was a predominately black church, and Renata’s father was replacing a minister who was racist. When she asked about her father’s predecessor, he taught her about the nature of racism. Ms. Hinrichs then tells us about her mother, a woman from a poor family who received a scholarship, fell in love and became the perfect 50s housewife.
The family went to church on Sunday, her father’s first day of work. Before they entered, Renata’s mother informed her that if she didn’t behave, she would “beat the living daylights out of her.” Apparently, her mother said such things when she was really serious. During the sermon, Renata noted that “Dad is wearing his big white robe with puffy sleeves. When he opens his arms…he looks like a snow angel.” She was entirely enthralled by him and the church.
On Renata’s first day of kindergarten, she was excited, but had to walk to school alone. First, her new Wizard of Oz bag was stolen. Then, the next day, as she tried to make friends with a classmate on their way to school, she was beaten up by her classmate’s sister, who didn’t want her sister speaking to white children. As the older girl kicked Renata, an African‑American boy intervened and stopped it. He assured Renata that she didn’t do anything wrong. She told her father what happened, and he said that the boy who intervened was her guardian angel. Her father mentioned the incident during his next sermon. Renata was quite upset, as this “was [her] secret.” She was also worried because “what if [her] guardian angel doesn’t come back?”
When Renata was in the first grade, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The mood at school was funereal. Once the news became known, all the students were sent home. Her mother picked her up. On their way home, riots broke out in the streets. They were scared and unsure of what to do. Once home, Renata was instructed to stay inside. Renata imagined that all of her baby dolls were sick. She stepped out into the backyard, and saw fairy dust. She heard sirens and people yelling. The fairy dust kept falling around her, until her mother forced her back indoors. Renata didn’t realize that the fairy dust was ash from fires that had been set. This scene is filled with trauma and childlike oblivion.
During dinner at home with her father, a brick with a threatening note tied to it was thrown through Renata’s window. Using a racial slur, it targeted Renata’s father for ministering to the African‑American community. Their home was now tainted by violent racism. Later that night, when Renata was meant to be asleep, she heard a man seek her father’s help. He had witnessed a murder. He also heard an off‑duty cop say, “I’m gonna get me one tonight,” meaning that the cop intended to murder an African‑American person. The man, who was black, wanted Renata’s father to accompany him to the police station, because he didn’t feel safe going alone.
Ms. Hinrichs moves forward in time, to the homecoming dance with which she began her story. She never saw Willy again after that night, but 30 years later, she found photograph of the two of them. She reminisced looking at the picture, and decided to add him on Facebook. She was hesitant, but eventually reopened communication with him. Willy sent her an email apologizing for that night and explained that he was constantly told to “beware the blue‑eyed devil.” He said that he wanted to dance with her, now that he could. After she reads the email to us, the performance ends the same way it began, as she dances to the sounds of the past.
Though her story was moving, Ms. Hinrichs was not always as convincing when playing characters other than herself, and her final anecdote about receiving an apology from her ex‑boyfriend was politically questionable. As the only person of color in the audience that night, I felt that Ms. Hinrichs was exceedingly focused on the discrimination her family faced for their tolerant views – a problematic feature of an otherwise powerful performance.
Written and Performed by Renata Hinrichs
Directed by Jessi D. Hill
February 14 – March 2, 2019
Photo credit: Mitch Traphagen
Magic Window and Light Productions
TBG Mainstage Theatre
New York City
MEHR GUNAWARDENA is a writer from Sri Lanka who pursued her education and ambition in the United States. During her time at Clark University, she began experimenting with form and structure to make her writing as accessible as possible to all readers, while keeping true to her voice. She enjoys writing poetry and other fictional pieces with political and societal nuances, and is therefore drawn towards art with similar intentions.