While waiting for my guest to return from the ladies room after Monday night's performance of J.T. Rogers' White People, I amused myself by observing the faces of those exiting the theatre and waiting for the elevator to take them up to street level. The white people in the audience were generally very quiet with serious faces that suggested they were deep in thought. The non-white people I observed all displayed that healthy vibrancy that comes with taking in a lively evening of exhilarating theatre; particularly the woman with the Obama baseball cap who was happily chatting away with her companions and the young man who was sitting in front of me during the show, whose hearty laughter throughout the 90 minute piece told the whole room he was having a ball.
But don't worry, white playgoers. You needn't arrive at Atlantic Stage 2 armed with useful phrases like, "Oh, I'm not like them," or "Yes, but they're the bad ones," because White People is refreshingly non-accusatory. (I was the straight white guy attending performance art in the late 80s. I know accusatory theatre! ) Three unrelated characters (yes, all white) deliver monologues to the audience regarding racial issues that have crept into their lives (or, as Americans, they've been stuck with since birth); their speeches are broken up into roughly two to four minute segments so we keep switching from character to character to character.
While the play premiered in 2001, this is its New York debut and obviously when it comes to race relations in the U.S. there has recently been a major pot-stirring event. Recent revisions include sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes' opening aural montage where you can pick up key quotes from our new president's campaign amidst the cacophony of loud city noises and hip-hop music. And while the characters never refer directly to the new administration, the one you might chose as "Most Likely To Have Voted For Barack Obama" opens the play with a reference or two to a new hopeful optimism in the country. He is the young college professor Alan Harris (Michael Shulman). Dark, bespectacled and dressed in corduroy and argyle, one who judges books by their covers would guess him to be an educated, guilt-ridden, domesticated New York liberal. (Costume designer Michael Sharpe is spot-on in choosing each character's "uniform")
Alan is spending his Sunday relaxing with his coffee at his favorite bench in Stuyvesant Square, where he considers how the tyranny of Peter Stuyvesant that allowed for the massacre of the people who originally lived on the island he calls home lead to the life he enjoys today. ("Children were hacked to death, pieces of them sliced off and tossed into bonfires... so I could have a cappuccino? So my pants could be wrinkle-free cotton? So I could read the New York Times in 'peace'?") He's very uncomfortable with what he calls, "Past horrors as the creator of progress."
He's also uncomfortable with his star pupil, Felicia, an 18-year-old black ("Oh! Sorry! African American.") woman who proves herself to be a brilliant student, but to Alan, the way she dresses, speaks and carries herself reinforces images of her a drug dealer, baby mama or prostitute.
Clothes and language are also of major concern to Martin Bahmuellar (John Dossett) a loud and abrasive high-powered Brooklyn attorney who transfers to St. Louis and is very vocal about what he calls, "the power of conformity." Martin takes pride in the specific corporate uniform that serves as visual shorthand that communicates success and decency. ("You look at me, you know I'm not going to knife you. You know I'm not going to stomp your face, slit your throat, laugh about it... The color of your face doesn't matter. It's the uniform that is safe") He knows the black employees in the mail room resent him for banning gold teeth, baggy, low-hanging jeans and playing music he feels promotes violence and disrespect for women, but he also complains about his teenaged son's preference for loud, profanity-laden head-banger music, wearing his hair in a buzz cut and wearing steel-toed boots with a zippered leather jacket.
If Alan fears having racist thoughts and Martin denies having any, North Carolina housewife Mara Lynn Doddson (Rebecca Brooksher) wears them on the sleeve of her comfy old sweatshirt. But to her they are a justified defense against a world that makes her feel punished for having a great-great grandfather who owned slaves and a mother who wouldn't sit in the back of the bus. ("Guilt is not transferred through blood. I am clawing through life just like everybody else!") The financially struggling former head cheerleader has a severely ill son who requires the help of a specialist who was born in India; a man she feels continually talks down to her. Add to that an uncomfortable episode with a black woman she considered a friend in high school and the discovery that her husband is cheating on her with a Chinese woman and Mara Lynn is not feeling much like an integrationist. ("We were here first. All these new people -- black, brown, yellow - they need to see us, get behind us, and wait their turn.")
If the characters we see on stage and the unseen characters they describe seem familiar and broad-stroked, Rogers successfully digs beneath stereotypes based heavily on truth. He doesn't judge them. He simply lets them have their say, has each of them react to a life-changing event, and leaves it to us to feel what we feel. The strength of White People, particularly in director Gus Reyes tight and swift production, is that it takes a volatile subject and never tries to dictate emotion or force a reaction. John McDermott's unit set depicting park benches, a kitchen and an office allows for quick transitions, as the cast remains on stage and in character throughout the piece.
The underplaying, introspective Shulman, the brash, dominating Dossett and the fragile, pitiable Brooksher all give excellent and well-detailed performances.
Many fine plays are thought-provoking. White People insists on being discussion-provoking.
Photo of Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Shulman, and John Dossett by Joaquin Sedillo
Posted on February 05, 2009 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.