White People by J. T. Rogers. Directed by Anna Brownsted.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Just for a moment, language doesnít matter."
It was 1975. I went to see Robert Patrickís new play, "Kennedyís Children," with Shirley Knight, Michael Sacks and Kaiulani Lee at the John Golden Theatre. I absolutely hated it. It was a bunch of people in a room saying monologues, never addressing one another. This was thirty-four years ago. I hated it.
Flash forward to Shakespeare and Company, August, 2009. I am there to see J.T. Rogers new play "White People," with Dana Harrison, Michael Hammond and Jason Asprey. It is three people sitting and saying monologues, never addressing one another. This time I tolerated it, but I still wasnít a happy camper. I like plays where people say things to one another, not to me. I donít mind a good monodrama, like "Shirley Valentine." That can be fun. But when there are two or more people on stage I want to see how their stories interweave, how they interact and react. I donít want to be part of their show. I donít mind reactions from the audience, laughter, tears, pangs of jealousy, remorse or any other human reaction. That's what a play does, after all. I just donít want to be the stand in for the character the author neglected to write into his non-play and not be allowed to speak, to talk back on the spot, to ellicit a response of my own from the characters who address me directly.
Not that there arenít wonderful speeches in this play. Or that there arenít talented actors. Itís just that they have to work so much harder to keep my attention because I can only see them, alone, talking to . . . no one. As I listened in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre to their individual tales of dealing with incidents that involved other races than the "white" I wished for a fourth character, maybe a grief therapist, who is listening to their tales of woe, as they are listening to one another perhaps, and giving us a guide to the meaning of these tales, these diatribes. These expository speeches do not give us the characters they are playing only their stories; it is the actors who bring the characters to life, even though it is a one-sided life.
Oh, well. To the performances:
Dana Harrison plays Mara Lynn Doddson, a dissatisfied housewife in Fayetteville, North Carolina whose son suffers from Rasmussenís Encephalitis, a rare form of Epilepsy. She has a difficult husband and a hard time associating with the Indian (that is a man from India) medical specialist assigned to her childís case. Harrison plays the sweetness of the character to a fare-thee-well, a distance that includes revelations about her husband and her own attitudes toward men with darker skin. When her particular racial dam bursts, it floods the southland like nothing has since the Ku Klux Klan first rode on a small cabin in the woods and lynched its first unfortunate victim. At one point, so caught up in her emotions, Harrison let her southern accent slip away, but she recovered it nicely.
She plays the emotions hard at her kitchen table set. She swings in mood from carefully content to marginally discontent through most of the evening. Itís not a broad range, but that is how the play is written. There were moments when I wished she would simply yell and expose her characterís suppressed rage. When something like that occurs, she is a damsel in distress, her heat level so high her light cotton dress should be bursting into flames. Itís a very nice performance. The only thing missing is someone on stage to react to, participate in, flare back at that heat she exudes.
Jason Asprey plays Alan Harris, a history professor whose obsession with a black female student named Felicia always skirts its true objective. Aware of racial sensitivities he pursues political correctness to a tee. When he and his wife are attacked by a crew of minorities, he comes face to face with his own deep fears and withheld prejudices alongside those of his very pregnant wife. The performance is passionate on many levels, but once again with no one to respond to what he says, feels or hides away in his mind. With a New York City park bench as his location, Harris views humanity reflexively: "luminous and exquisite fall short as words," he tells us. His students have replaced them with "stupid" as a superlative.
Aspreyís American accent still needs work. Anytime he gets excited or passionate on a subject his British Isles upbringing takes over his lips and tongue and the resultant pastiche of sounds makes him hard to understand and hard to believe. At those moments, especially, his acting is showing. He does anger well and again, there is no one to come back at him with anything which would have worked well in the case of his particular double story. We really want someone to tell him off, set him straight, get him onto a reality road.
He might have done well in a room with Michael Hammondís character Martin Bahmueller. There is an overlap in their tales, although with a reversal of major proportions. As the perfectionist father of a teenager who participates in the rape and mutilation of a black couple in St. Louis, Missouri he has to deal with his own unstated feelings about race and throughout his series of monologues he does just that. As a counterpoint to Aspreyís character their conversations would have been something to revel in from an audience point of view. Instead we have monologues.
Hammond needed a cue at one point in a speech that was dynamic and fascinating. When no reaction came from the stage manager, Amelia Bales, the actor was hung out to dry until she could find his spot in the script and feed him his cue. In a dialogue piece that might never have occurred as actors are notoriously helpful to one another in those situations. His Martin is strong, compulsive, determined and infallible, for the most part, and his deterioration from primate-executive into a confused father was fascinating to watch and hear. Hammond is very good in this role, very good indeed.
Each of the three actors has his or her particular space. They never leave their own environment in designer Kiki Smith's concept. It becomes just a bit too much like watching a three-ring circus, especially when the lights, designed by Greg Solomon, stop highlighting the speaker of the moment and leave all three locations in equal or similar light. That mistake is a costly one for it encourages us, the audience, to watch someone other than the person speaking to see if there is a reaction. It also taxes the actors much more than necessary, for they know they are in full view.
In a busy season at Shakespeare and Company, highlighted by three one-woman shows, this collection of monologue dramas broken up into smaller bits and pieces does not completely satisfy. It is to the credit of the three actors, and the work done by the director Anna Brownsted, that the play never lags. This, however, is not a play, but a collection of stories told almost simultaneously. Had all three been just played through without stopping this tri-locale monodramatic 90 minute without an intermission evening would have been a true circus. Heaven be praised!
Dana Harrison; photo: Jeremy Goodwin
Jason Asprey; photo: Jeremy Goodwin
Michael Hammond; photo: Jeremy Goodwin
The three-ring circus designed by Kiki Smith; photo: Jeremy Goodwin
White People plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the campus of Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through September 4. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353.