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Theatre in Review: Help (The Shed)

April Matthis and company. Photo: Kate Glicksberg. Courtesy: The Shed.

The title of Claudia Rankine's play feels a tad ironic since few leading ladies have the self-possession of April Matthis. Comfortably ensconced at center stage, exuding authority, she addresses us in a voice that works as a subtle caustic; in conversation with others, her deadpan stare makes foolishness shrivel up and die. And yet she is warm, affable, gifted with the knack of turning a roomful of strangers into her confidants even when discussing the most sensitive, divisive issues. Is this a woman in need of help? Hardly.

Such skills are well-suited to the occasion, and Matthis, last seen as the enterprising title character of the baseball bio drama Toni Stone, is masterful as the central figure of Help. It's a unique assignment, as she isn't playing a character per se. Instead, she is "a representative of my category -- the approximately eight percent of the US population known as Black women. Within this category, there are many names for me -- 'Sojourner Truth,' 'Diamond and Silk,' 'Condoleezza Rice,' 'Stacey Abrams,' 'R-E-S-P-E-C-T,' '100% That Bitch'." We immediately learn that she has little use for conversational niceties. Waiting to board a plane, the white man standing next to her comments that he loves airplanes, adding, "No phones. No news. Can't stand the news. Nonstop these days." "You shouldn't have voted for him," she replies.

Well, that's the end of that conversation. (I don't need to tell you who "he" is, do I?) But it's the first leg of an anthropological investigation into what happens when she challenges -- or, in some cases, merely alludes to -- a white person's inherent status. The results are fascinating, funny, dismaying. Help is something altogether different, a kind of essay for the stage offering an eloquent and biting argument staged with theatrical flair and crackling with drama.

Thus, a man taking note of Matthis ahead of him in the airport line, mutters, "You never know who they're letting into first class these days." Another, turning defensive, says, "When I hear privileged minorities talking about white privilege, it truly disgusts me." Yet another, employing pretzel logic, says, "It might be more beneficial to be poor rather than middle class. Barack Obama and Kamala Harris certainly benefited from being Black. Privilege is a complex reality and simplifying it into whiteness is simplistic and self-serving and racist." Lurking behind such statement is an unexpressed sense of victimization: "My son wants to go [to Yale] but wasn't accepted during the early-application process. It's tough when you can't play the diversity card." Think, for just a second, about having to hear such statements incessantly, knowing that, intentionally or not, they include you.

Some of the above were drawn from comments posted online in response to Rankine's 2019 New York Times article, "I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege, So I Asked." Others are drawn from interviews conducted by Rankine, theologian Ruby Sales, and filmmaker Whitney Dow. The text of Help also draws on the public record, often quoting a rogues' gallery of right-wing celebrities. For example, Ann Coulter, that woman of the (white) people, says, "There's nothing good about diversity other than food, and we don't need 128 million Mexicans for the restaurants...Proposing an immigration policy that serves America's interests should not require an apology." And here's this charmer from Marjorie Taylor Greene, regarding the members of Congress known as the Squad: "I really want to go talk to these ladies and ask them what they are thinking, and why they are serving in our American government. They really should go back to the Middle East."

Putting aside the remarks of panderers-for-profit and grifting politicians, so much of what is said in Help is the result of unconscious bias. Many of Matthis' interlocutors think their experiences and perceptions constitute a kind of default reality; in their view, anyone who thinks different is contentious or radical. When asked to consider otherwise, they get mighty defensive. Few of them can tolerate questions like these: "Are you able to move in and out of public spaces without being questioned as to why you are there? Do people rush forward, almost tripping over themselves and others, so they can ask how they can help you as a polite form of surveillance?" This gulf in perception turns Help into a kind of comedy of manners, albeit one with dire implications for our society.

Lest you think that Help is entirely an exercise in gotcha tactics, Rankine broadens her argument, making the point that this toxic racial divide poisons everyone. Noting the high rate of suicides and opioid addiction among white men, Matthis says, "This same population of people support Republican lawmakers, their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, their reluctance to expand Medicaid, their resistance to the Child Tax Credit, their refusal to raise the minimum wage...Even as they're in physical and fiscal pain they insist on the structure that allows everything to be taken away by other white men they voted into power -- because whiteness is worth dying for."

There's nothing stunningly new here. Rankine's ideas have been articulated by commentators ranging from James Baldwin and Isabel Wilkerson to David Brooks and Ross Douthat. But the text of Help is an elegant piece of synthesis, informed by the playwright's personal experience and enhanced by an unfailing ear for the absurdities and prejudices buried in everyday speech. Director Taibi Magar, who demonstrated her assured way with ensembles earlier in the season in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at Signature Theatre, has again assembled an unusually adept company that includes the likes of Jess Barbagallo, Tina Benko, Charlotte Bydwell, Joseph Medeiros, John Selya, and Nick Wyman.

The play is described as unfolding in "liminal spaces of airports and airplanes," so set designer Mimi Lien has come up with a kind of departure lounge filled with rolling chairs that can come together to create the interior of an airplane cabin; it's a flexible, clean, clutter-free solution. John Torres' lighting slips seamlessly between bright white institutional looks and unexpected bursts of colors and patterns. Dede Ayite's costumes show a wickedly accurate eye for the corporate drag favored by business class travelers. Lee Kinney's sound design includes several key effects, including buzzers, rewinding audio tape, and a chilling excerpt from one of ex-President Trump's messages to his followers.

Even at a running time of an hour and a half Help could be trimmed by seven or eight minutes, and a movement sequence, choreographed by Shamel Pitts, meanders a bit before coalescing in a tableau of the January 6 insurrection. Then again, this moment leads to Rankine's closing argument, that the racial illusions by which we live are contributing to our bitter political divisions and choking our democracy. (Underlining her point about the trouble we're all in, an actor channeling Elon Musk starts raving about start a colony on Mars, turning humans into a "multi-planet species." Don't start packing just yet.) By the final fadeout, the title of Rankine's play seems frighteningly apt. Still, this is one of the most bracing theatrical events of the season. --David Barbour


(25 March 2022)

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