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Theatre in Review: White Girl in Danger (Vineyard Theatre/Second Stage Theater)

Lauren Marcus, Molly Hager, Latoya Edwards, Alyce Alan Louis. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

If you've ever questioned the importance of good sound design in theatre, White Girl in Danger will provide the definitive answer. Michael R. Jackson's new work is an ultra-high-concept musical set inside the fictional universe of a TV soap opera of the same name. (It's more like an early '90s Aaron Spelling primetime sudser than a Proctor & Gamble entertainment for desperate housewives, but Jackson borrows from many sources.) The opening number, "Allwhite," establishes that the main characters are all Caucasian, with anyone of color relegated to the "blackground." It's a pretty audacious premise, blending straight-up spoof with a critique of racial politics, and it's just what you might expect from Jackson, who reaped a harvest of shock laughs in his taboo-shattering debut piece A Strange Loop.

There's only one problem: "Allwhite" is almost entirely unintelligible. Like, the lyrics, the ultimate source of the problem is unclear, but it seems as if some combination of poor diction, overly assertive orchestrations, and an aggressive sound system form a perfect storm, wiping out one's ability to make out the words. Things improve only marginally after that, causing one to struggle to keep up with what is happening onstage. And, believe me, Jackson doesn't make it easy.

To wit: Keesha, a member of the blackground, is determined to achieve principal-role status on the show. (To be clear, she is a fictional television character, existing in a world where every move is dictated by an unseen writer. But whatever.) Then she gets promoted, recast as the supportive pal to the show's trio of heroines: Meagan, Maegan, and Megan. (One is pronounced, "Mee-gan.") All three are walking basket cases suffering from depression, addiction, and eating disorders. Adding to their anxieties is the serial killer stalking the town, knife in hand, thinning out the female teen population.

It's putting it mildly to say that the script is overloaded, what with three interchangeable white girls entangled with boyfriends named Matthew Scott, Scott Matthew, and Zack Paul Gosselar. (That all three young men are played by the same actor does little to clear up the onstage confusion.) Then again, trying to keep track of the action is futile; Jackson introduces multiple plot lines only to dead-end them as he puts Keesha through a series of constantly shifting situations.

Keesha quickly tires of functioning as a coffee cup, the term used for minor soap characters who exist only to give and receive exposition. (A typical line: "Wow. Did you guys hear they found another body in Allwhite Wood?") She also must put up with Tarik, her Black love interest, who, back from the dead after previously being gunned down -- his shirt is blood-stained -- urges her to stay in the blackground with him. By this point, Keesha is starting to sprout blonde tresses, a phenomenon that will, ultimately, be greeted with the terminally unfunny diagnosis of "hair cancer," from a physician known as Dr. Blackcock.

Much of the action centers on a high-school battle of the bands. ("We should clearly do 'Let Me See That Hole' or 'Murder Me, Please, Daddy'," says Megan, planning a killer song list.) Then an already wildly stylized show slips down a surreal rabbit hole. For reasons I couldn't explain under pain of death, Keesha briefly ends up in an alternate series about cotton-picking slaves. Then she gets dispatched to a courtroom, arguing a case against a prosecuting attorney who also happens to be her mother, previously a lunch lady and school nurse. Then, somehow or other, Keesha ends up "president of the nation of Allwhite and CEO of Allwhite Industries and Chief Cultural Tastemaker." Power brings out her inner Eva PerĂ³n, preaching a gospel of "interblacktional bleminism" and attending a fashion show where the female models sing, "Tonight, I drip with anti-all-white haute couture all over me!" Soon, she and Megan are cavorting, half-dressed, while behind them the chorus sings, "Lesbian sex! Lesbian sex!" By the time everyone is running through a forest, either planning or running away from murder, you may find yourself hopelessly lost.

And for good reason: What unfolds on the Tony Kiser Theater stage is sheer chaos, on a level I haven't seen in decades, and it raises some painful questions. Were Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage so eager to snap up the new piece by last year's Tony winner that they declined to provide any creative oversight? (For example: Did nobody express any concern about the three-hour running time?) Was Jackson so emboldened by the critical success of A Strange Loop that he refused to make revisions? (That would explain the script's strange fondness for third grade-level jokes about "Jason Priestley white's massive elephant cock;" the frequent use of the term "Blackground Indigenous Character of Color," or "BICOC;" or Keesha's offer to let a suitor "butter my muffin with hot Blackground Butter spread.") Does the absence of any musical theatre credits in director Lileana Blain-Cruz's biography provide a significant clue? (It might explain the inattention to the sound design.)

Whatever the explanation, this is an unfortunate production that is unlikely to do anything for the gifted Jackson. To prove his talent, the author of White Girl in Danger shows up at the last minute, baring the psychological conflicts and legacy of abuse that inform his creation. It's a lengthy monologue, but it is also cogent, slashing, and blessedly intelligible. It's a reminder of what an attention-getting writer Jackson can be. In its concision and clarity, it also obviates the need for most of the previous three hours.

At the performance I attended, Latoya Edwards cut through the noise as Keesha until after the intermission, when, apparently indisposed, she was replaced by Alexis Cofield, offering a remarkably confident performance under the most difficult of circumstances. Adam Rigg's set design, influenced by the graphics of the NBC series Saved by the Bell, is clever, as are Montana Levi Blanco's early '90s-style costumes. Jen Schriever's lighting accents the characters' freakouts with plenty of color and movement. Jonathan Deans has a long record of fine sound design work, so I don't know what happened here. Josh Higgason's projections, especially the introductory credit sequence, constitute the show's most amusing aspect by far. Even so, it suffers from overreach: The script expends ten pages on satirical PSA commercials, featuring the characters, that run during the intermission. The sequences are done to a turn, but the sound level is so low that they can't be heard. It's a lot of work for no payoff.

If nothing else, White Girl in Danger advances the argument that sometimes the most helpful thing a theatre company can do is to delay producing a playwright's work. A Strange Loop famously took nearly a decade to come to fruition. I'm not saying this show might require such a lengthy development, but clearly it was not ready to be seen. --David Barbour

(21 April 2023)

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