Ruffling Feathers | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Ruffling Feathers 

Playwright Carleton Bluford fights his people-pleasing instincts for the provocative The Clean-Up Project.

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  • Courtesy Plan-B Theatre Company

Make no mistake: The Clean-Up Project is not intended to be a comfortable experience for audiences. It confronts the effects of racism on the everyday experience of people with evident anger and frustration. And that reality kind of freaks its creator out.

"I'll be honest with you: I'm terrified of how people will react," says Carleton Bluford, playwright of The Clean-Up Project. "It's scary. But I've written the play and done it anyway."

Premiering this week from Plan-B Theatre Company, The Clean-Up Project is a four-character piece involving a Black couple and a white couple, in a speculative near-future where some racial roles have been flipped. It's a work born out of Bluford's anger and frustration over instances of institutional violence against people of color like the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings in 2020, originally expressed in a journal entry at that time. But Bluford wasn't sure that he would be able to turn those feelings into a publicly-produced piece of theater, simply because of some deeply ingrained personality traits.

"Part of my identity has been to be a people-pleaser, to make everyone in the room feel safe and taken care of, before myself," Bluford says. "Even Mama [his first produced play], an ode to mothers and written for my mom, was really just me saying thank you to all women. [The Clean-Up Project] specifically has brought out a lot of the things I haven't really been able to say, because I don't want to make people mad or ruffle any feathers. ... The real meat and heart of this piece is figuring out what I want to say."

That process of figuring out The Clean-Up Project wasn't one that he had to go through alone, since it was developed in collaboration with Plan-B over the past two years. "Everyone has their own process," Bluford says. "I was lucky enough o have two: My own process, and Plan-B's process. [Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier] offered me a workshop, we got actors who we thought might do well with the characters. Every week, I'd bring something in that's written, and we shape it that way."

What emerged was a story shaped by a few fundamental elements. One of them, according to Bluford, was the Joseph Campbell model of the "hero journey," establishing an ordinary world and progressing to what breaks that world and gives the hero something to do. Another was the desire to have all of his characters—both Black and white—written in a way that felt genuine and compassionate.

"It was very important to me to have a correct voice of someone who was white in this show," Bluford says. "The things that they say, they truly believe, and come from actual conversations I've had with my white friends. It's so important to have a 360-degree perspective."

That doesn't mean, however, that it was easy to incorporate ideas related to white people's reluctance to confront institutional racism, an idea that has manifested itself over the past year in the conservative attacks on anything that could be lumped under the term "Critical Race Theory." "When things like this come up, I take care of myself and shield myself," he notes. "It's too hard to hear white people rationalize stuff like this. I get that it's hard for them to face. But the difference for us is that it's been hard for 400 years."

So it became a tricky tightrope for Bluford to walk—an interest in confronting issues honestly, while also being fair to people of all races as individuals. "Hopefully, we can start a dialogue," Bluford says. "People of different ethnic backgrounds were part of creating [The Clean-Up Project], and I think that's okay. Empathy is so important, man. We have to listen to each other. Even if we don't agree, we have to listen."

And while Bluford believes The Clean-Up Project has done what he set out to do, in terms of giving a non-BIPOC audience a sense for what it's like to live as a BIPOC person in America on a daily basis, it's still hard to feel conventionally "happy" about it in a way that other creative artists might be when looking at the final result of a great deal of effort.

"I am so proud of this piece, but it's not a kind of play I'm excited about," Bluford says. "Every time I go to rehearsal, it hurts over and over again. This is kind of a purging for me. But I won't really feel better until I'm writing a play about how crazy it was that there was ever a time when this stuff happened to BIPOC people."

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About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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