White People at Shakespeare & Company

Racist Ennui of the Ruling Class

By: - Aug 26, 2009

White White White White White White

White People
By J.T. Rogers
Directed by Anna Brownsted; Set Design, Kiki Smith; Lighting Design, Greg Solomon; Costumes, Sarah Hilliard; Sound; Michael Pfeiffer; Stage Manager, Amelia Bales; Cast: Jason Asprey (Alan Harris), Michael Hammond (Martin Bahmueller), Dana Harrison (Mara Lynn Dodson).
Shakespeare & Company
Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
August 21 to September 4, 2009

As the audience arrived in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre for J. T. Rogers' "White People" they encountered the three actors Jason Asprey (Alan Harris), Michael Hammond (Martin Bahmueller), and Dana Harrison (Mara Lynn Dodson) seated on three white platforms at staggered levels. Hammond on the central platform was slightly elevated above the others. It signified that he was the more dominant of the three characters and brought some focus to performances that proved to be as uneven as the platforms they were perched on. Think of the Arctic with three Polar Bears each on its own slab of ice.

With a curtain at 8:30, for a show that started some ten minutes later, given that we were seated at 8:20, meant that we observed the actors for some twenty minutes. There were elements of ambient music and soft lighting. The audience became indifferent to their presence and engaged in often loud conversations. There was an ambient chatter that clashed with the silence of the actors. One was waiting for something to happen. Ninety minutes later we were still waiting.

The play commenced when an off stage voice told us to turn off all cell phones and not take pictures. It disrupted the mood created by a twenty minute interval of silent contemplation of the players.

When the lights came on and dialogue commenced we were presented by the stark set of Kiki Smith and the static staging of the director Anna Brownsted. There was so much whiteness. Ok, we get it. The title of the play is "White People" so, what else, a white on white set. Alan Harris, a Brooklyn based college professor of Cultural Anthropology, was seated on an amputated park bench. Martin Bahmueller, who has moved from Brooklyn to St. Louis to head a large law firm, has a somewhat wider flat on which is a desk, strewn with documents, and an office chair.  Mara Lynn Doddson, a former homecoming queen and now trailer trash from Fayetteville, North Carolina, is seated in an ersatz kitchen. Her elbow leans on a truncated table supported by just two legs.

Through the course of the evening we come to wonder if we are experiencing a one act play or three one act plays. This is a play within a play times three. The monologues, which shift from flat to flat in no apparent order, represent three takes on the subliminal racism of the working class (Doddson), academia (Harris) and upper middle class (Bahmueller). The play is a part of a troika in the Life Laid Bare series. The other two plays include the American premiere of  Donald Freed's "Devil's Advocate" and  an early play by John Patrick Shanley "The Dreamer Examines His Pillow." While I did not attend "Devil's Advocate" the contrast between "Dreamer" and "White People" was in every sense black and white. In this case the edge goes to the phenomenal, all black cast of "Dreamer" which literally makes that of "White People" pale by comparison.

Not that the script by J. T. Rogers doesn't have its moments. With a stronger cast and sharper direction many of the lines might cut to the quick. Initially, there were peels of laughter, particularly from the center of the front row. For the most part the audience remained mute as arguably much of what was said on stages mirrored the hearts of darkness in our deeply repressed but brutally racist society. The text of the play deals with the attempts of our society, almost a half century after the peak of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to deal with the aftermath of social engineering, affirmative action, entitlement programs, and political correctness.

The play deals with the backlash and resentment of "White People" at all levels of society. The problem with this drama is that Rogers, eschewing any possible realism and nuance, has unearthed absurdly extreme examples to make strident points. The professor and his pregnant wife have been jumped and beaten, she is kicked in the stomach, by black hoods. The uptight lawyer's son has been involved in the gang rape and assault on a black couple. While the white woman entrusts delicate brain surgery of her son to a towel headed (read Sikh) doctor. Please, spare me.

Not that these things don't happen. But to bundle them into a polemic about the racism of white people, guess what, delivered to an all white audience, is well, kindah stupid. In this slanted concoction we learn that "stupid" is black slang for good. You be the judge.

With firmer direction this is a play that might have worked. Since the performance we attended was post opening night it was disconcerting that all three actors were blowing lines. Hammond after a long pause had to ask for a line. Asprey never was in command of the text. He seemed to be reading rather than delivering the lines. Both Asprey and Harrison struggled keeping their accents consistent. Asprey grew up in Great Britain and that kept slipping through. That's ok when he performs "Hamlet" but not so great when performing a contemporary American character. Harrison's trashy Southern accent seemed too educated for her character and lapsed occasionally. Right geography but wrong sociology. This part called for a bit more Tennessee Williams and less Truman Capote.

Mostly, like our friend the Polar Bear, Asprey seemed adrift as the young and disillusioned college professor. In age and temperament he was closer to being an eager, sanguine graduate student than a burned out professor who has taught the same courses too many times. That should occur in one's second or third decade of teaching, and not the first. The professor revealed the trope of finding that one feisty, eager, bright, attractive student. The twist is that the gum popping, trash talking Felicia is black. There's the rub.

As the boss brought in to shake up a legal firm Hammond's Bahmueller (yikes what a name) is mostly effective. He certainly looks the part wearing what he describes as the corporate uniform. That is a blue, Egyptian cotton shirt, with cufflinks. Not rolled up. Tan pants and that upper management red tie. But, as his daughter corrects him the shirt is not blue but 'blueberry." The pants are not tan by "cantaloupe." He rails about being dressed in "fruit." But that's not all that upsets him about our politically correct society. This unleashes a litany which would have been funny had it not seemed so predictable and mechanical.

While Hammond is a well trained actor he never seems to get beyond the technique and tricks of the trade. There is a lot of craft but not much substance to the character. We feel for his efforts to raise children in a safe environment, to shelter them from the storm. But it is hardly credible that his teenage son, who grew up in Brooklyn, had morphed overnight into a violent racist in St. Louis. It seems that he wrote the hate filled note that was inserted into the vagina of the black rape victim.  The father recognizes the handwriting of his son.

He exclaims after reading the note shown to him by the black Captain Washington "He can't even spell nigger right." That's two g's not one. The boys also smeared her with feces. This sounds all too much like the  faked Tawana Brawley incident. The playwright in a game of aesthetic Texas Holdem opted to go All In. It was so absurd that it deprived Hammond's character of a credible response.

Which brings us to the down on her luck former Homecoming Queen. Harrison as Mara Lynn married the class stud a champion wrestler. It seems her father drove all the way to High Point to see him in the State Championship. He was on his way to a full scholarship until he blew out his knee. After a bit of local college he ended up as a truck driver. That magnificent body melted away in a river of Bud. Then they gave birth to a son with Rasmussen's Encephalitis.

As life has gone down hill Mara Lynn is a festering mess of resentment and racism. Her mantra is that as a white woman "we came first" so the immigrants and minorities should line up behind her. There is not a tinge of self reflection about how she lacked ambition, education, and common sense. She went for the stud and ended up with a dud. What else is new?

An evening of being pummeled about race and white guilt is not my idea of fun. Or even particularly insightful. For that we don't need to go to the theatre. Like most Americans I can just stay home and look in the mirror. How stupid.