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Theatre in Review: White Noise (The Public Theater)

Thomas Sadoski, Daveed Diggs, Zoë Winters, Sheria Irving. Photo: Joan Marcus

We're well into the twenty-first century and Suzan-Lori Parks wants you to know that, here in these United States, we're still living in the shadow of the plantation. Nearly one hundred and forty-five years after Grant and Lee faced off at Appomattox, the toxins of slavery still course through the body politic, in a contagion that spares none of us. It's an appalling idea, one that I found myself initially resisting while watching White Noise, a play that thrusts slavery into a contemporary context, all but daring us to deny what is right in front of our eyes. But Parks makes her argument with such vigor, pursuing her outrageous premise through a series of exquisitely probing confrontations, that long before White Noise reached its shattering conclusion, I had surrendered. Whether or not you do the same, you are unlikely to leave the theatre unshaken.

And, really, look around: The evidence supporting Parks' thesis abounds, including the fury raised by the removal of Confederate statues, the horror of Charlottesville, the dozens of young black men exterminated by the police without cause, or the hundred and one videos on social media featuring an enraged white person hurling invective about blacks or other ethnic groups. In the Washington Post, datelined November 28 of last year, a defender of the Confederate monuments, feeling wounded about his portrayal in the media, says of slavery, "We're not claiming bad things never happened, but it wasn't all whippings and killings, either." A few months earlier, on July 21, the Post quoted a Sunday school teacher from Alabama: "Slaves were valued," she said. "They got housing. They got fed. They got medical care."

Feeling appalled? Smugly superior? Don't. Even as you're reeling from the concept of bondage as a form of Medicare, consider that, in Parks' view, that Sunday school teacher is, in her own way, warped by racism. As are we all. And the playwright goes to stunning lengths to prove it.

White Noise may be the first more or less naturalistic play in Parks' oeuvre; it was a smart move to ground her action in everyday reality, which makes it difficult to reject the horrifying turns built into the plot. She has also populated the action with four complex, compelling characters; friends since college days -- at one point they formed a modestly successful rock band -- they constitute a seemingly inseparable ad hoc family-- which proves to be no less immune to the snares of race than any other.

Leo, who is black, is an artist, his once-promising career currently in turnaround. He lives with Dawn, a white lawyer who specializes in defending young black men -- the second-, third-, and fourth-time offenders who can't escape the prison pipeline. Leo's best friend, Ralph (who is white), a child of divorce, endured a poverty-ridden childhood, raised by a single mother; his late father's only heir, he is now independently wealthy. Still, he feels like a failure: He can't get published and has just been passed over for a tenure-track teaching position in favor of a candidate of subcontinental Indian origin. ("Someone who writes sonnets," Ralph grouses. "A fucking Shakespeare wannabe.") Ralph lives with Misha, who, despite having been raised by two African-American female academics, is the star of a weekly webcast titled Ask a Black, in which she explains to white callers why, for example, blacks aren't thrilled by requests to have their hair touched. For the show, Misha undergoes a transformation: "I dial up the Ebonics, employ the gestures and linguistic characteristics most often featured in communities of African descent," she notes. "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." What it does mean is that Ask a Black provides White Noise with some of its most amusing sequences.

The foursome begins to unravel after Leo, walking through a strange neighborhood at night, is unjustly detained by the police. He ends up being pushed to the ground, and, in terror, wetting himself; despite his attempts at maintaining his cool, he is deeply traumatized. Dawn is already gearing up for legal action, but Leo has another, more drastic plan in mind: Looking Ralph squarely in the eye, he says, "I want you to buy me."

This was the moment I physically flinched, and, based on the dismayed murmur that ran through the audience at the performance I attended, so did many others. And yet, this is the second play this season to propose some form of reenacted slave scenario as a drastic form of therapy. (The other is Jeremy O. Harris' Slave Play, a funny and provocative, if overextended, work, and little more than juvenilia compared to White Noise.) Indeed, Leo has more than one justification for the plan. First, he says, the next time a cop tries anything funny, "I will have something to say: I belong to Ralph Shildkritter. Yes, that Ralph Shildkritter. The one who inherited more bowling alleys than there are states in the union. Ralph Shildkritter, he looks after me. I am his property. And if I am harmed, injured, or disrespected in any way, you, Mr. Po-lice, you gotta answer to Mr. Ralph'."

A little later, quoting James Baldwin ("Nothing can be changed until it's faced"), he insists, "The pain and rage need to get worked out of my system. I'll take myself to the lowest place and know, forever after, that if I can bear it, then I can bear anything. And my mind will be free."

(One has to wonder if Parks -- perhaps having read William Goldman's The Season -- is aware of Carry Me Back to Morningside Heights, an infamous Broadway flop of 1968, in which a guilty white Jewish social worker hires himself out as a slave to a black man. "A lengthy racist farce," wrote Clive Barnes, and few disagreed. If this sounds like some impossible piece of schlock, consider that the cast included Louis Gossett, Jr., Diane Ladd, David Steinberg, and Cicely Tyson -- and the director was Sidney Poitier. White Noise is all but certain to have a happier career, but clearly, some issues remain permanently stuck in our national psyche.)

Despite Ralph's profound reservations -- and to the open horror of Dawn and Misha -- a deal is struck for a master-slave arrangement lasting forty days, sealed with an exchange of cash. (Leo will become debt-free.) The two men enter into the arrangement almost as a lark, and, at first, Leo appears to be little more than a sort of valet/man Friday, laying out Ralph's clothes and bringing him tea. He also pushes back, refusing to take the slave name of Thaddeus. Things really start to get queasy during a renegotiation of the initial contract, a give-and-take in which Leo agrees to give up reading and writing and Ralph signs off on prohibitions against physical mistreatment and forced sex. Gradually, the jokey, we're-just-bros atmosphere begins to thicken with something more sinister. By the time Leo is forced to briefly don an iron slave collar -- struggle against it and you're choked to death -- and pose on a table holding a "genetically modified" bonsai cotton plant, the discomfort level has become acute.

Ironically, Ralph, whose mantra has long been "life hates me," blossoms under the new arrangement, slicking up his wardrobe, getting a story published in The New Yorker (with material thieved from Leo's personal history), and joining a "white club," whose entirely male Caucasian membership takes a too-avid interest in his dealings with Leo. Meanwhile, Dawn, shrinking from Leo's proposal of marriage, takes urgent steps to escape their relationship; it's the first of several personal betrayals rooted in the group's shared history. And Misha, despite her overt disapproval, cashes in, bringing Leo onto her show and earning thousands of hits from fascinated viewers. By the time Leo goes rogue and Ralph has a business plan to monetize their little experiment, the stage is set for a brutal showdown.

Despite its white-hot central plot device, White Noise is marked by the maturity of Park's vision, her penetrating insight into her characters. Oskar Eustis' assured production is marked by smart casting; each member of the four-person cast is fully equipped to explore the contours of his or her character's conflicted soul. Returning to the New York theatre for the first time since Hamilton, Daveed Diggs, as Leo, delivers a character who comes by his malaise honestly, being artistically blocked, locked in a romantic endgame with Dawn, and unsettled by the realization that, for him, walking down the street can be a source of peril. Scalded by his slave experience, he comes roaring back for a blistering confrontation with Ralph. As Misha, Sheria Irving is a riot presiding over Ask a Black; she also handles beautifully some of the play's most mordant commentary when confessing, "Black-splaining the world is working my last nerve. Getting questions like 'Is that your real hair?' or 'When did you know you were black?' or "What do black people really think about such-and-such?" Thomas Sadoski confidently manages Ralph's transformation from world-class self-pitying schlub to an Olympic-level model of white male entitlement. Zoë Winters deftly balances Dawn's political idealism with her more self-aggrandizing personal activities; she is especially good in a monologue confiding that she knows full well that her client is guilty, but any black youth kept out of jail constitutes a moral victory. You take your justice where you can find it, she insists.

White Noise is a play that wants an elaborate design, so Clint Ramos has provided a sleek, white-walled playing space with gutters built into the stage deck to facilitate the many scenes set at one of Ralph's bowling alleys. Xavier Pierce's lighting is clean and unobtrusive, with occasional color chases on the upstage wall to indicate success in the bowling lane or a police action in progress. Lucy Mackinnon's projections track the days of Leo and Ralph's contract; she also provides amusing graphics for Ask a Black. Dan Moses Schreier's fine sound design includes various effects and the one sort-of-hit song spawned by Clover, the group's college-era band. Toni-Leslie James' costumes are filled with subtle details: Note the Clover bowling shirts and the strips of kente cloth woven into Ralph's bathrobe.

The title refers to the machine that, early on, Ralph buys for Leo, trying to alleviate the latter's insomnia, but it is also the buzz of received ideas that affects everyone, twisting the most intimate relationships out of shape. Clearing that buzz is necessary, but it comes with consequences. "All of us, we all used to be able to talk about anything and everything and now we can't talk about shit," Dawn says. "That's cause now we're for real," Misha replies. As White Noise powerfully demonstrates, attaining freedom is most definitely a no-pain, no-gain proposition. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2019)

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