nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
January 31, 2009
With the first black president recently taking office, there has been a universal acknowledgement that, while a significant shift has clearly taken place, we still have a ways to go with regard to race issues. In White People, playwright J.T. Rogers attempts to show how American whites are now struggling to reconcile certain long-held beliefs in the multi-colored face of a new reality, yet while the theme is noble in its enterprise, it is ultimately too over-simplified in its execution.
Three white characters in three different locations comprise the cast of White People. Speaking in direct address throughout, these very different socio-economic types never interact with one another, yet a commonality in their ingrained attitudes with regard to race traverses time and space to link them. There's Alan, the middle-class left-leaning college professor trying to connect with his students in New York City; Mara Lynn, the struggling Southern mom defending her views in Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Martin, the "master of the universe" no-nonsense businessman railing from his ivory tower in St. Louis. Of the three, Alan is by far the most developed and complex character. His passion for history and seeking connections between the past and present provides the human center of the play.
The fundamental problem with White People is that it paints a layered and complex issue with too broad strokes. In making these three people representative of an entire section of the population, Rogers presents white American consciousness in too unrealistic and narrow a way to make his ultimate message pack any sort of meaningful punch. Oddly enough, Rogers ends up also doing a disservice to the non-white population by choosing to invoke well-worn stereotypes through the eyes of his characters. Martin is frustrated by the mailroom guys who wear their pants too low and play their hip-hop too loud, Mara Lynn feels that the Indian doctor taking care of her sick child should feel lucky to be practicing in this country, and Alan can't quite reconcile the fact that one of his black female students is challenging him on an intellectual level, while at the same time wearing "earrings the size of small planets." Near the end of White People, each character reveals an incident that recently occurred, which is what has ostensibly prompted them to begin unburdening their frustrated, guilt-ridden souls to us, but these revelations seem orchestrated and awkwardly placed, and so ultimately don't feel as organically motivated as they should.
John Dossett is convincing as the imperious Martin, a man who has very specific expectations about how people, especially the younger generation, should dress and behave. Though Martin feels like that "old-fashioned out-of-touch type" who might at any moment burst out into a rendition of "Kids," Dossett dives into the psyche of his character with the kind of commitment that makes you almost forget that he is a mouthpiece. Rebecca Brooksher is less successful as Mara Lynn. While serviceable, her performance needs more specificity and depth. She hasn't found a way into her character's skin yet, and as a result Mara Lynn comes across as too generic to earn our empathy. Michael Shulman, however, as the well-intentioned but conflicted Alan is outstanding. His speech patterns, body language, and energy create a unique character whom you care about and with whom you can identify.
Gus Reyes directs the action with a gentle and unobtrusive hand, and John McDermott's realistic set design distinguishes the three spaces clearly, while at the same time also allowing for enough overlap to remind us of the common thread. McDermott's use of muted colors also works well to evoke the play's underlying depressive pulse. Les Dickert's appropriate lighting design alternates between stark and moody, nicely reinforcing each character's inner feelings of vulnerability and exposure.
Long-held mindsets will not change overnight the way our leadership has, and so it is critical that we now begin to re-examine the way in which we have viewed ourselves and others if we are to continue to move forward. To that end, White People is timely and topical as it challenges white America to exorcise its true feelings and fears about race so steps toward true change can be possible. However, like the nature of white itself, there is far more to this topic than White People's small prism is ultimately able to refract.