H.P. Lovecraft is really having a ‘moment’ right now. Thanks to the explosive popularity of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, the 1930s American Sci-Fi writer has never been more popular,with many finally looking into the influential novelist’s work… and then discovering just how despicable he was. Weaving racist undertones into much of his writing (or, sometimes just stating it explicitly), Lovecraft’s personal legacy has become tainted by the bigoted beliefs he held, but can the same be said for his work? Indeed, the brilliance of his novels directly inspired some modern favourites like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, is it right to condemn both the man and his compositions? The Racist in the Chat, a new play by Devin Tupper, goes some way to answer this question, examining whether Lovecraft and his work have a place in contemporary society; the production is still rough around the edges, but is very much worth the watch.
Ironically, the winner of the London Lovecraft Festival 2020 New Writing Contest, The Racist in the Chat concerns three contemporary writers charged with deciding whether or not to remove Lovecraft’s name from an industry award: Julia (Natalie Morgan), an academic and fan who has dedicated her life to Lovecraft’s work, Parker (Cathy Conneff), an enterprising author of horror teen-fiction, and Sydney (Paris Rivers), who has been asked to oversee the process. However, in classic Lovecraftian style, their discussion suddenly takes a dark turn: a demonic and mysterious force called ‘HP’ hijacks their Zoom call, trapping the trio to their seats until they can come to an agreement on how to treat Lovecraft’s legacy. As the arguments become more personal and heated, a scary question rises to the fore: what’s really at stake here?
The play is very much centred around this important and topical conversation: should our reverence towards great historical figures change in light of their racist and sexist behaviours? Or do their horrible actions become diminished when stacked against their contributions? Tupper excels in these ambiguous moments, deftly balancing the arguments on both sides without ever soapboxing, the research and thought he’s put into these tête-à-têtes is staggering, rooting the conversation in real-world examples of societal racism (Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are highlighted as especially egregious cases). Moreover, since the play is ‘set’ in 2015, we know the situation only gets worse: their retrospective discussion on race becomes even more heart-breaking and prescient in a post-George Floyd world.
However, whilst the play excels on a thematic level, it languishes slightly on the dramatic side. The threat presented by ‘HP’ is never really acknowledged by the characters, meaning the fiendish force becomes just a blatant plot device rather than something that’s actually scary. Additionally, after the first 30 minutes all the main arguments have been heard and the discussion tends to go round in a repetitive, semantic circle, by the end, the narrative really runs out of steam.
However, as far as staged readings go, The Racist in the Chat is definitely on the better end of the spectrum. The actors do well with the script, Tupper’s ideas are fresh and incredibly important, and director Coral Tarran finds exciting ways to present all the different arguments. The play isn’t quite ‘there’ yet, but it’s certainly a diamond in the rough.
The Racist in the Chat is available on YouTube.