Lighting Designer – Sam Nance
Costume Designer – Samantha Rodriguez
Props Designer – John Harvey
Sound Designer – Kurt Kleinmann
Stage Manager – Ben Schroth
Jason Folks – Alan
Charissa Lee – Mara Lynn
Jack O’Donnell – Martin
Reviewed Performance 5/9/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
A week after President Obama’s first term election, a reporter from London’s The Guardian wrote an article on the handful of plays exploring racial issues and prejudice that were being performed in New York. In the shadow of Obama’s speech, A More Perfect Union, in which he reminded America of “the complexities of race . . . we’ve never really worked through” and “a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years”, Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment asked audiences to look at their own assumptions and prejudice about race. Signature Theatre devoted their entire 2008-2009 season to the works of the Negro Ensemble Company, and Starry Night Productions revived J.T. Rogers’ 2000 play, White People.
The play is written as three separate pieces, woven together from the monologues of three white Americans from different backgrounds living in different parts of the country. All have one thing in common though, as their life stories slowly emerge from their say-out-loud head and soul searching – the world they envisioned or assumed was theirs by right turns out not to be the one they’re actually living – and they struggle with the whys.
Young NYC professor Alan is balancing upcoming fatherhood with the starkness of his unfulfilled teaching. Southern housewife, Mara Lynn, is a disillusioned, high school homecoming queen, now homemaker, with a severely ill toddler and a blue-collar, wandering husband. Martin is a self-made, successful attorney transplanted from Brooklyn to the Mississippi River Midwest. Through the course of ninety minutes, one by one, all the little hurts, denied promises, resentments, guilt feelings, entitlements, and fears come spilling out, all of them either tinged or splattered by race and racial issues. Mara Lynn’s pediatric doctor is from India and she can’t help but spout little racial digs about the person trying to help her child. Martin has no qualms dispelling those in his office that cannot dress or speak correctly – it’s the “uniform (and the use of words) that matters, not the face” – or so he says. Alan is intrigued by the one person in a sea of students that confronts his lectures, a young black woman he reduces to her style of hair and dress.
J.T. Rogers’ script is like an archeological dig – small brush aside of words, little chipping away of thoughts, reveal the underlying truth of how these people use race and racial relations to justify themselves. Rogers’ characters start slowly but then don’t mince words as feelings well up. Alan is sitting in Stuyvesant Park, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, near Stuyvesant Street, and he keeps dwelling on the fact that the Dutchman slaughtered thousands of Native Americans in order to take the land he now stands on, and to what degree does he accept that to have what he has now. Mara Lynn has gratitude towards her Indian doctor in trying to help her son, but holds a huge grudge on his prosperity as she declares, “…we were here first”. Martin sincerely believes conformity is the only way to succeed, and though even he doesn’t fit the niche he desires, he still rallies that “skin color gets in the way…”. There are plenty of raw, visceral outbursts and outcries, but then each in turn withdraws with a “but of course I didn’t say that (out loud)”. Rogers’ words are power houses of declaration and denial all in one.
For the most part, Chad Cline’s direction allows those powerhouse words fly without restraint. Each actor stays mainly in their own stage space, but occasionally Cline blocked them to move down center stage and speak directly to us under individual spots. Those small steps downstage dissolves their worlds and takes one out of their stories. Rogers has written the monologues to be to no one in particular, and I envisioned the characters actually speaking to themselves, so when suddenly they speak to the audience in the form of an aside, it jars the scenarios and erases the heightening tension. However, I recognize the nicely directed, emotional build each actor possesses to parallel the building revelations found in the script.
In White People, the actors are essentially performing a one-person show. Each in their small world, there is no interaction between characters, and it startled me a bit during curtain call when they finally looked at and smiled to each other. The concentration and energy needed to stay in both character and previous emotion must be draining. It was interesting to watch each actor when not in the light, their eyes lowered, reading or writing something, to stay in the moment until they spoke again. In Churchmouse’s online video, Cline speaks of working with each individually for a large portion of the rehearsal time, and the effort shows.
Jason Folks, as Alan, opens the play, and his is probably the most difficult character to get to know. Being a history teacher, his diatribe on Peter Stuyvesant makes it hard to grasp Alan’s personality. His thoughts go off in several directions but Folks keeps up with him all the way and helps you understand his heart and layered PC guilt with darting eyes, shifting body and constant looking around as if in fear of something or someone. Alan’s fervent desire is to not fall victim to his feelings, but to endure and survive, and the emotion portrayed by Folk clearly reflects his character’s desperation to do so.
Using a generic drawl that might be from Oklahoma, Texas or Louisiana, Charissa Lee pours Southern charm into Mara Lynn. Charm is what gets Mara Lynn through each day, and Lee’s body language, with hands clutched in front of her and a controlled, stuck-on smile, are reminescent of Mara Lynn’s upbringing, and Lee clearly shows it’s her last attempt to hold on to former glory days and her set-in beliefs. It’s beautifully off-putting when Lee spouts such venomous lines while standing there as if hosting an afternoon tea, and her characterization of Mara Lynn, while not at all surprising in its brutality, is still perfectly molded into the stereotype of what some think of when using the phrase “uppity white people”.
Jack O’Donnell’s portrayal of Martin is like a heat-seeking missile, dead set on its target with unwavering accuracy. This man knows exactly what he thinks, how he feels, what’s right, what’s wrong, and there is no exception to the rule. Martin has raised himself up to the position he now holds and has little tolerance for anything outside his minimalist-thinking box. It’s probably useful that O’Donnell spent many years in the business world as he obviously understands the mentality of one who seeks conformity to acquire the existence they desire. Open-minded is for losers, intergration is for the weak – your dress, your language, who you associate with – those are the marks of a winner. The way O’Donnell stands, moves around the stage, sits behind the desk, his authoritative voice and speech inflections all reflect a calculating man that truly believes in only one path to success. It’s when that path is washed out in the torrent of a family member’s action does he lose all footing, and O’Donnell performance is commanding, coiled with tension, and the most slap-in-your-face, revealing and poignant of the evening.
In keeping with Churchmouse’s goal to maintain “the simplest possible use of lighting, set, costumes and special effects … to effectively present the author’s intent”, each separate location is denoted by only one or two pieces of furniture – a kitchen table, a deeply sullied park bench, an executive desk with high-back, rolling chair. John Harvey’s props are only what each actor needs to support the scene – laundry basket filled with boy’s clothes, children’s books and a suitcase; a cup from an all-too-familiar coffee shop, and a desk lamp, files and papers to denote importance.
Sam Nance’s lighting is also simplified but very specific for each character. Mara Lynn’s down lighting is soft but also pinpoints her like a knife. The use of a mottled gobo, like that of a shaded tree, on Alan’s face is a bit distracting as there are moments you cannot see his eyes, but it reminds that he is in a New York park. Martin’s office is generic, but his lights are bold, harsh and somewhat startling, and his dramatic spotlight slaps you to attention.
Costumes are current, “from the closet” fashion with a few interesting choices. Alan tries to go preppy-chic in rolled jeans, tweedy jacket, two-toned oxfords and messenger bag. Martin is all business in a crisply ironed, robin’s egg blue button-down shirt, cranberry tie, slacks and polished shoes. And at first, I didn’t completely understand Mara Lynn’s housewife attire of cream-colored satin blouse, tan-flowered skirt, choker pearls and quaffed hair, but then realized she is holding on to the last vestige of her Southern belle, glory days in high school – nice detail.
The sound effects, designed by Kurt Kleinmann, support Alan’s opening monologue, with urban traffic noises and the bark of a dog in the park. These come back to remembrance later on in his story. Mara Lynn’s child is only heard making noises in his bedroom offstage but it envisions a very active little boy. Car horn bleeps and other small effects round out the scenarios.
By the end of the play, we discovery life-altering situations that have befallen the three characters, things that will forever change their world’s trajectory, and all are connected to or by their attitude towards and dealings with people not of their race.
The end of The Guardian article asks if the “unusual number of shows (a big three companies in 2009 ) exploring the subject of race” was enough. August Wilson, in his great debate on race in the theatre, called for an end to non-profits including one show a season by a minority playwright under the guise of liberalism. And I hope not to sound jaded when I say I wasn’t horrified or taken aback with the play’s dialogue as I know of no one who has not had similar feelings and thoughts, even if fleeting, towards people of other cultures and races. It is simple, human nature to sometimes “reject” those not like us and cling to those that are. J.T. Rogers’ White People is must-read and a should-see, and Churchmouse’s current production vigorously transcends his work. Whether it will be just another tossed bone on the tumbling mountain of racial relation discussions can only be measured by what happens after the viewers leave the theatre, what is deposited in minds and hearts or simply remains on the stage floor.
In the age-old Life imitating Art, imitating Life saga, I went to a grocery store after the play for some milk. Standing in the express line, a Hispanic woman at the front was purchasing much more than the limit. Using coupons and counting change made the wait even longer. Once she left, the young white man in front of me and the older white man behind me started a rather boisterous conversation as to how the woman should be able to read the sign and why didn’t she learn English if she wanted to live here.
And on it goes . . .
at the Bath House Cultural Center
521 E. Lawther Dr.
Dallas, TX 75218
Runs through May 25th
**Note – the play contains strong adult language and themes.
Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm.
Tickets are $20.00.
For information on the play, performance dates and a map to the theatre, go to www.pegasustheatre.org and click on “Performances”. To purchase tickets, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/625783 or call 800-838-3006 (option 1).