BWW Review: Suzan-Lori Parks' WHITE NOISE Uses 'A Far-Out Idea' To Get Us Talking About Hard Realities
In February of 1968, when Americans were about to witness the most violent year of the 1960s Civil Rights struggle, Sidney Poitier made his Broadway directorial debut with Robert Alan Aurthur's CARRY ME BACK TO MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, the story of a white fellow, played by David Steinberg, who wishes to pay his share of reparations for America's racist history by being the slave of a black man, played by Louis Gossett Jr.
It was a satire that did indeed close on its first Saturday night, perhaps because there appears to be very little danger for a white man putting himself into that position.
In White Noise, the always thought-provoking Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks reverses the situation and finds the danger; not just for her characters, but for audience members who may not like the thoughts going through their heads as they witness her heady social commentary.
The story concerns four friends, now in their 30s, who met in college, briefly formed a band together, became two sets of lovers, then switched partners.
Leo (Daveed Diggs), was diagnosed with pediatric insomnia as a child and despite numerous types of treatment has rarely been able to get a full night's sleep. He credits this affliction for the type of energy emitted from his paintings, describing himself as "the fractured and angry and edgy black visual artist."
He lives with Dawn (Zoe Winters), a white lawyer especially dedicated to helping victims of bias crimes and racial profiling. While prepping to meet with her newest client, Dawn encourages Leo to sue the city for a recent incident where he was roughed up by police officers.
Leo says he has something that could be more beneficial in mind. "It's a totally far-out idea that could solve everything." But he has to think about it a little more because "It's either stupid or bullshit."
His idea involves his white friend Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), with whom he's been best buds since the days when they were stars of the college bowling team. Ralph grew up poor with a single mom after his abusive father remarried and cut off contact. But things changed quickly when dad died and left him a great deal of money.
He's been seeing Misha (Sheria Irving), a woman of African descent who hosts a livestreamed show called "Ask A Black," where she puts on an exaggerated personality and answers callers' questions like "How come people get offended when I ask them if I can touch their hair?" and "Do you think we're going to have a race-war any time soon?"
"I dial up the Ebonics, employ the gestures and linguistic characteristics most often featured in communities of African descent. On my show I perform my blackness, 'cause I feel like, if I don't act black, then folks looking for the real deal won't call in. Cause they won't see me as authentic. Whatever that means."
But she drops character when comforting Ralph after he's passed up for a promotion.
Though nicknamed "Righteous Ralph" for continually demonstrating his worth as an ally, he allows himself to feel self-pity because, as he tells Misha, "A second-rate person has my job just because that second rate person is black."
In the play's opening scene, Leo tells the audience how Ralph once bought him a White Noise machine to help with his sleep problem. That "sound of silence" helped him sleep soundly for a full year, but he threw the machine away because he also felt its constant presence during waking hours, which distracted his creativity.
But now, Leo feels he wants that constant presence, so on one of the quartet's double date bowling nights, he asks Ralph to purchase him to be his property for 40 days.
"I would like to be owned. Be under the protection of someone who, to the powers that be, is a Big Somebody."
Naturally Ralph is shocked and disgusted, but Leo perseveres with his insistence that his friend would be doing him a huge favor by temporarily being his master. He even has a contract ready specifying what is and isn't permitted.
"Nothing can be changed until it's faced," he explains, quoting James Baldwin. "The pain and rage need to get worked out of my system. I'll take myself to the lowest place and know for ever after, that if I can bear it, then I can bear anything. And my mind will be free."
Ralph goes along with it to help his friend and offers a purchase price that will wash away Leo's credit card and student loan debts.
It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal any of what happens next, between both Leo and Ralph and Dawn and Misha. Some may find it surprising, some may find it fully expected, according to the angle you're seeing it from.
And while Parks' plot may seem like, as Leo puts it, "a far-out idea," the superb cast, under Oskar Eustis' direction, plays it with believable conviction, and it's the ideas behind the plot that rise to the forefront.
And as we look out at what the country has become in recent years, and how social media has illuminated what we have always been, it's necessary to have artists like Suzan-Lori Parks around to keep us thinking, and talking, about what we can aspire to be.