Review: ‘The Clean-Up Project’ at Plan-B Theatre

In the past two years, Utah theater companies have made noticeable strides to include more performers and creators of color. This progress is far from complete, but it’s still heartening to see an intentional effort from producers, performers and patrons to change a community that was overwhelmingly white: onstage, behind-the-scenes and in the audience.

Even in this more inclusive environment, The Clean-Up Project, a new play at Plan-B Theatre by Carleton Bluford, stands out for its frankness. Written after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, this fiercely political work is a raw, righteously angry alternate history that draws upon both the present-day reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S.’s legacy of racism. The question The Clean-Up Project asks is a necessary one: what if all the buzzwords of the past two years—“healing” and “reckoning” and “listening”—will never be enough? 

In a near-future America roiled by race riots, Jordan (Latoya Cameron) and Melvin (Chris Curlett), a Black couple, have essentially become hermits, unable to handle the harshness of the outside world. When two of their white friends, Ryan (Matt Sincell) and Taylor (Sarah Walker), unexpectedly show up at the house injured and terrified, Jordan and Melvin learn that the nation’s unrest has only grown more severe—not only have Black Americans taken over the country, but now all white people are vulnerable to being enslaved or killed. As Ryan and Taylor hide, Jordan and Melvin receive an unwelcome visit from two militants: one, Cameron (Calbert Beck), a longtime friend and the other, Chris (Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin), a stranger.

Latoya Cameron and Calbert Beck in Plan-B Theatre's "The Clean-Up Project"
Latoya Cameron (left) and Calbert Beck in Plan-B Theatre’s “The Clean-Up Project” (Photo by Sharah Meservy/Courtesy Plan-B Theatre)

When Bluford started writing The Clean-Up Project in summer 2020, the idea of an all-out race war hardly felt outlandish. However, the play’s conceit—a dramatic, unequivocal reversal of the U.S.’s deep-seated racial hierarchy in a matter of months—sometimes strains credulity. (If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that anti-Blackness is an inescapable, insidious part of American life.) Though Bluford is willing to take the plot to extremes for the sake of a potent argument, the emotion of the characters remains the focus. Every time a horrifying detail of this new society emerges, audiences are reminded that practically everything that happens in the play is a historical reality for Black Americans—it’s just that now, white people are the victims. Even when The Clean-Up Project outlines the details of this strange new world, it never feels like a cold thought experiment. 

In the small Studio Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, the creative design is intentionally austere—there is hardly a set to speak of, and almost all props are pantomimed. The spare staging by director Jerry Rapier keeps the focus on the performances and script. In the black box, audiences sit in a single row of chairs lining the stage, creating an atmosphere both intimate and claustrophobic. There is no escaping the play’s emotionally candid confrontations even when, especially in the fourth-wall breaking finale, you might want to.  

In one especially cathartic monologue, Jordan expresses her rage at the position of Black women in American society—a target of both racism and misogyny, she feels dismissed in ways both big and small by the people in her life and the world at large. Appropriately for a play largely about discrimination against Black women, Cameron and Darby-Duffin are the two standouts among the cast. They movingly explore their characters’ difficult, at times contradictory feelings, from deep anger to heartbreak to, in very different ways, weary optimism for a better future. The rich debates between Jordan and Chris power the play, providing the discussions of race and power with a human-scaled, emotional core. 

By the play’s jarring, meta conclusion, it’s clear that Bluford is more interested in political and social commentary than in presenting a tidy narrative. The questions he raises, though, are fascinating, and even when the characters (at times literally) preach to the audience, the ideas are thorny and provocative, resisting easy, feel-good messages of harmony and tolerance. Bluford even uses the typical makeup of (often very white) Utah audiences to his advantage. His writing has plenty to say to liberal white “allies,” raising questions about who is truly committed to progress and what that progress would actually look like. You probably won’t leave The Clean-Up Project feeling particularly hopeful about the future of race in America. But even when the play’s details feel over-the-top, the conflicts that rise to the surface are recognizably, painfully real.

The Clean-Up Project will be at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center through Feb. 27. In-person performances are sold out, but the production will stream online from Feb. 23-27. For more information, visit Plan-B Theatre’s website. Read more about Utah theater.

Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

Similar Articles