Set two generations apart but in the same college dorm room, “College Colors” is an ambitious but seriously conflicted dramedy about the pitfalls of forced communication between the races and the traps along the unexpected detours of social correctness. In the first scene that takes place in the present, we are introduced to first year students Tanya (Wakeema Hollis), who is black, and Julie (Gillian Mariner Gordon), who is white. Tanya is reserved and unsure how much to reveal to her roommate. Julie is a motor-mouthed lamebrain with a tendency to put her foot in her mouth with every breath.
In the next scene we are whisked back to 1964, the year the university has just changed its policy to admit black students. In this same room, smartly dressed Aaron (Andrew Manning) is quiet, understandably nervous, and not at all confident about being seen as the sole token of desegregation. His white roommate, Michael (Matt Maretz), is going through hoops, if not quite as frantically or idiotically as Julie, to initiate a friendly relationship. And here is where the play jumps the tracks and only in the final scenes is suddenly re-routed for an accommodating if predictable resolve.
Comedy allows for a great deal of latitude with its characters and plot development. But there has to be a point when we can perceive the playwright’s perspective and objective. What are we to make of Julie who is from the outset clueless, offensive, aggressively annoying, and close enough to being emotionally unstable to set off a run-for-your-life alarm in Tanya’s head? Are we surprised that Julie, unlike the perfect in looks and demeanor Tanya, is not a prime candidate for a sorority pledge?
Back and forth we go in time. The steadfast and assured Tanya tries to play down being popular and the legacy of having a wealthy father and a donor to the university. Julie plays up her scary facade that ignorance is bliss; the gentle, scholarly Aaron becomes the target of vicious racist attacks. For an added melodramatic touch, Michael succumbs to the desires of his concealed sexuality with a black off-campus hustler (Kevis Hillocks, who also doubles as Tanya’s boy friend.)
Whatever points are made regarding racial identity, political/social posturing, and/or sexual orientation surface at the expense of what we see as either logical or believable. However, fine performances by all, under the direction of Kevin Kittle, allow us to make room (set designer Bethanie Wampol gives them plenty of room) to extend a little empathy for some insufferable characters and the incredulous doings thrust upon them.
College Colors, Crossroads Theater Company, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m., through February 14. $25 to $55. 732-545-8100 or www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.