Theater Review: White People

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02/20/2009 10:00 AM |

By Liam Pierce

As we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of an historical moment, it’s easy to trace our fingers along the civil rights timeline and say "Ah yes, here we are." But statements like "Yes we did" can underwrite the notion that racial justice is a series of irreversible victories rather than a continual process of trial and error, heartbreak and happiness.

It is important, then, that art jostle us from this deceptively secure location and beg us to reconsider, to relocate. And the theater world is certainly taking an earnest, if misguided stab at it. White People, playing at the Atlantic Stage II through February 22, is a play by J.T. Rogers that questions the adjustments of the privileged consciousness to this moment of symbolic upheaval.

From the get-go, there is much to question about the play’s premise. "Really? Is it about time white people get a stage to express their opinion on race?" Also: "To whom?" Knowing the typical patrons of the theater, I half expected a show entitled White People to consist of 90 minutes in front of a mirror.

Instead, the play is structured as a sort of triptych of monologues, with all three characters’ locales sharing the same stage. (Each character takes turns addressing the audience in round-robin style, depending what lighting effect decides to pay them attention.) Each represents a different demographic of whiteness — each with a back-story that coalesces into a narrative haunted by the changing role white people play in America.

A young professor (Michael Shulman) delivers his address from a park in Manhattan while struggling to reconcile two prejudices toward black people — one in his bright young black female student and another in his black assailants from a recent mugging. A struggling North Carolina housewife (Rebecca Booksher) puzzles over the authority and privilege of the Indian surgeon who treats her son for epilepsy. And a Brooklyn born-lawyer (John Dosset) seethes about black culture and class at the office in St. Louis, and yet becomes confused by his son’s violent skinhead tendencies.

The play’s message trades in this frustrating kind of dichotomy. Here is a stereotype; here is a stereotype turned on its head. Think something along the lines of the over-simplified racial politics in the film Crash. Except in White People we don’t have the opinions of, well, not-white people.

What this gives us is the kind of dubious moral tug-of-war found when white people are left to confront race by themselves. It’s an intriguing topic, no doubt, but one stinted here in monologue. Each character is not so much relatable as identifiable. (Even the anthropology professor’s gush about his student comes across as the White Man’s Burden, lifted.)

However, there are moments when the show’s message is redeemed by great acting. Dosset, as the overtly prejudiced lawyer, often strikes a proper dissonance in emotional tones. His rant about rap and the black employees at his firm dips into a boyish fear at times, followed by pinched confusion, using an all-that-aside matter-of-factness to try and clean things up. Racism more often resembles this child-like terror and bewilderment, as opposed to the composed weighing of cultural norms and cries of injustice.

But even after reading between the lines of the three characters, the play’s rhetoric falls short—stuck somewhere between "I’m not racist, I have a black friend" and "I know I shouldn’t say this but…" It comes across as a meditation on white guilt, as the play ends in calamitous hand-wringing. And white guilt is neither a groundbreaking topic, nor anything all that relevant to the new chapter on race in America.

Aside from scant references to "a new page" and "hope," White People seems to be dealing in tired racial politics that give it the texture of a mid-90s Public Service Announcement throwback. While it may not bring a new voice to the stage, or cause us to jump the track and reconsider the civil rights timeline, White People stirs the pot a little. Even if it makes us want to see it stirred a little more.

Through Feb 22 at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W 16th St (between Eighth and Ninth Aves), 212-279-4200.