... because I can't help myself. Earlier today, I posted the first paragraphs of my review of Superior Donuts at Seattle Public Theater (the Bathhouse Theater on Green Lake) and Pullman Porter Blues at Seattle Rep.

  • Paul Bestock

But I can't get this scene from Superior Donuts out of my head, in which Arthur (the morose, pot-smoking, Polish-American donut shop owner) is talking to his new assistant and soon-to-be friend Franco (an exuberant young African-American writer with big intelligence, big energy, some secret moroseness of his own, and some gambling problems). Franco has been going on about how he's just finished the Great American Novel in a series of notebooks. He clearly wants Arthur to read his manuscript. But when Arthur asks, it kicks off a series of misunderstandings ("You wouldn't get a lot out of my book, Arthur P. I just mean, you know, you run a donut shop") and friendly banter—with a sharp edge.

This is a snapshot of the growing relationship between them, and a turning point in how they think about each other. And it's funny—Arthur's hangdog, deadpan delivery matched with Franco's swaggering ebullience gives all their scenes a comical and humane contrapuntal motion. There are other subtexts to this exchange (mostly, how each is trying to help the other, though neither recognizes it yet), but they're too much to lay down here.

* * *

Franco: Why you hassling me about my book?

Arthur: You brought it up!

Franco: And then you started hassling me about it.

Arthur: I'm asking to read it.

Franco: Because it's "Be Nice to a Negro Week"?

Arthur: You said I didn't want to read it 'cause you're black.

Franco: And now the only reason you want to read it is 'cause I'm black.

Arthur: I don't care that you're black!

Franco: Well you should! [Pounding his chest.] Proud black man!

Arthur: [Sighs.] Franco. Regardless of your skin color, yet in acknowledgement of your estimable heritage, I'm asking to read your book.

Franco: Cause you're so crazy about "Afro-American" literature! What, you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and so now you know all about The Experience? They made you read Langston Hughes in school and now you're an expert? Can you name any black poets other than Langston Hughes?

Arthur: Yeah, in fact, I can.

Franco: Go.

Arthur: Is this a test?

Franco: Yeah. This is a test. This is your racist test.

Arthur: I have to take a racist test?

Franco: You said you weren't no racist.

Arthur: Do you have to take a racist test?

Franco: You better re-read Malcolm, Arthur P. I can't BE a racist. I'm the oppressed! Five bucks says you can't pass my test.

Arthur: Make it a sawback.

Franco: Get your money on the table, sucker. [They put tens on the counter.] Okay. Okay, the test is... name ten black poets.

Arthur: Ten.

Franco: Yep.

Arthur: That's not a racist test, it's a poet test.

Franco: I'll even throw in Langston, all right, he can be number one. Go. Ten poets. If you say Nipsey Russell, the game is over.

Arthur: Langston Hughes.

Franco: That's a gimme. One.

Arthur: Maya Angelou.

Franco: Yeah, you saw her on Oprah. Good for you, that's two.

Arthur: Gwendolyn Brooks.

Franco [nodding]: Sure, Chicago blood. Three.

Arthur: Countee Cullen.

Franco [sarcastic]: Oh, now that's a good one. I'm impressed! You just answered the four black poets who might be in your crossword puzzle. But it gets tougher now. [Arthur looks like he's trying to concentrate. Franco laughs.] Brother, you are finished!

Arthur: Don't goad me. Give me a second. [Arthur thinks.]

Franco: Don't hurt yourself now.

Arthur: Give me a second.

Franco: Dang, Arthur, your head's about to split open.

Arthur: C'mon...

Franco: Your brain's gonna fall out on the floor!

Arthur: Oh, wait, what is his name?

Franco: Here comes Nipsey!

Arthur: Shh!

Franco: It's like watching George Bush on "Jeopardy."

Arthur [rubbing his temples]: The names will come to me.

Franco: You don't want to bump up the bet, do you? By a couple of million dollars?

Arthur: If I pass the test, you let me read your book.

Franco: If you can't, you let me try out my coffeehouse idea.

Arthur: Deal. Where were we?

Franco: Just four—

Arthur [rapid fire, total confidence]: Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and [triumphant] Yusef Komunyakaa.

[Arthur grabs the money, walks behind the counter as a customer comes in, then winks at Franco. Then there's a scene where a neighbor, a Russian immigrant who's trying to buy Arthur's shop, comes by for some donuts and some hectoring about the sale. Arthur refuses, the Russian neighbor exits.]

Franco: How you know them poets, man?

Arthur: I—

Franco: You're a damn hustler!

Arthur: I'm a reader, that's all.

Franco: Are you like one of those idiot-savants?

Arthur: Yeah, probably.

Franco: You're cold-blooded is what you are... Way you just rattled them off? Cold-blooded. Like you was Rain Man, only entertaining. Hey, tell me you ain't selling this place to that Russian cracker...

* * *

And it goes on, beautifully and tragically, from there.