• November 15, 2012 |

    A Battle of Wits

    race, identity, and a pinch of spice

    article by lauren neal

    In early 2009, riding the coattails of Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, a table at the Ratty hosted a few friends and one slumping sophomore (me) for lunch. The group repartee primarily involved talk of racial representation in the media; we were convulsing with laughter quoting every television show we’d watched as kids that featured characters of color.

    We debated what a TV show documenting the lives of Black students at Brown would look like. My friends and I became so involved we were late to class.

    The 2008 presidential race had purported to forever erase the conversation about race in the United States, but here a conversation about race compelled me and Nick White ’10 to create Spicy Wit, a satirical, mockumentary-style study of race relations in the Ivy League.

    By day, Nick and I crafted characters and pitched plot lines, trying our hands at painting a Technicolor picture of Black student life at Brown. At night, I needed to put a cap on the cranial complications caused by my nascent liaison with race; I set out to scramble my brain and made a colossal, Pollock-esque mess so sloppy and sophomoric that I put my education in jeopardy. Prior to that year, I’d easily passed for every race but Black; by the end of spring semester, an endless, belligerent parade of blacked-out partying made it so I could barely pass my classes. During the summer that followed, I faced the looming prospect of suspension from the University.

    This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like me.

    Waiting for course grades to clear and a dean’s final call, I could do little to placate my solitary, pulsating anxiety but pour it all into a scalding, 35-page script for the pilot episode of Spicy Wit.

    I had to get back to Brown.

    College Hill ultimately re-welcomed me, and I was back on track for junior year and only a little black and blue from summer’s standstill. Nick and I tried to produce Spicy Wit on campus, but scheduling issues forced us to scrap production. I never told anyone how close I’d come to scrapping my Brown career. I was too chicken.

    In May of 2011, I graduated on time. Carrying nothing but two suitcases, I moved cross-country to California. I couldn’t wait to kick the comfort of Brown’s campus, to coup the coop and spread my wings.

    Months later, I was habitually pretending that hunger builds character. On particularly delirious days, I feigned my diet was necessary preparation for a dramatic film role sure to simultaneously launch me into stardom and bring me to the mysterious basket in the sky where someone must’ve been keeping all the eggs. In spite of all my calculated intellect, clever quips, and crisp pedigree, I could not get a job. Retail, publishing, hospitality… no one would hire me. Brown offered no classes teaching how to make a checking account balance of exactly $0.09 gain interest. Should’ve done a GISP.

    I walked three blocks to my local El Pollo Loco, a road I would’ve preferred to keep less traveled. I filled out my application in the puke-pink plastic booth was nearest the window emblazoned with a snazzy decal: “¡Now Hiring!” I could only assume the managerial staff found me under-qualified for any open position. I didn’t go “Loco” until after I realized the restaurant chain was never going to call me back.

    Logically, I couldn’t make the idea of an Ivy League graduate on food stamps compute. But because Brown so diligently acclimates its students to acronyms, I was more comfortable living the EBT life than I thought I’d be, and I wasn’t ready to raise a white flag. That is, until last October.

    Up to this point, everyone with whom I spoke commended me for moving—just four days after graduation—to a completely unfamiliar city in pursuit of a dream. Last October, on the cold concrete of Sunset Boulevard, broken dreams were all a broken Lauren had to keep her company.

    When I fell victim to a violent crime that compromised my ability to reason, the sky was falling too.

    This wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like me.

    I forgot how to smile until I stumbled upon an ancient copy of the Spicy Wit pilot. It was funny! I forgot what a fire in my belly felt like until I was flooded with inquiries about the script’s revival. Spicy Wit was still burning a hole in my pocket.

    It seemed perfectly clear. I had to get my spark back; I needed my wits about me.

    I had to get back to Brown.

    This past May, three years after its inception, Nick and I rallied some of Brown’s most talented, socially conscious students to film Spicy Wit. I never told anyone how close I’d recently come to being devoured by despair.

    Spicy Wit taught me how to cheese: I wrote half a page of comedy for every day I dreaded a dean’s decision; I made a game of poverty and figured I may as well try to be the best player; I promised to crack up every time something was funny in case tomorrow found me with my skull cracked open. Practicing spicy wit as a principle is the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

    Over the last few months, with Spicy Wit in post-production, I found myself cowering again. I felt my family quake in the aftershock of medical and financial disasters. I saw my hometown blasted into the national spotlight following a tragedy in a dark movie theatre. I watched white surf swallow the boardwalk responsible for my best summers. I monitored the final moments of this year’s presidential race praying for the dissolution of red states and my heart racing all the while. Though fearful, I found a way to smile. Spicy Wit had rehabilitated me; I was remembering how to get fired up about injustice without neglecting to use my head.

    Twice previously have I written for Post-, and twice previously have I outlined the mechanisms by which I came to navigate my personal relationship to race, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. Still, I hid behind elaborate extended metaphors and poetic pretense; I told the truth but not the whole truth, masterfully omitting the most objectionable parts.

    This time, I have a new modus operandi. This time, with Spicy Wit, I’m throwing a dinner party. The show wants to know what happens when we all sit down to talk about race, so I’m inviting every birdbrain, spicy chicken, and witty wet hen. Everyone is to bring her bias, baggage, and token Black friend to the table. We’re gonna say all of the fucked up, inappropriate things one shouldn’t squawk out even when inappropriately fucked up. We’re gonna sit across from one another until we’ve learned to laugh in face of dangerous identity politics.

    Conceptually, “spicy wit” has come to mean something different to each person it reaches. Practically, Spicy Wit wants to build community around the notion that a healthy dash of attic salt and sagacity can make even the most terrifying, absurd, and painful truths more palatable.

    Conveniently sandwiched between President Obama’s second inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the twenty-five minute pilot episode of Spicy Wit will finally enjoy its Internet premiere on January 20, 2013, just as everyone arrives back at Brown.

    Lauren Neal ’11 keeps coming home to roost. | spicywit.info | spicywit.com | @SpicyWit |

    Illustration by Adela Wu