In the new J.T. Rogers play “White People,” three of the title characters tell their stories in monologue form, addressing the audience directly, each speaking for a few minutes then freezing in black-outs as the next person tells some more of his or her story.
The idea is that each of them is racist in one way or another, but not in the cross-burning, redneck fashion that is obvious. Their racism is subtle. It’s the kind of racism, the play wants us to believe, that we all have within us, somewhere, whether we recognize it as racism or not. (Don’t worry, the play will tell us what’s racism and what isn’t. Pretty much everything is.)
A play this politically correct is almost foreordained to be mired in pretentiousness. One character, a businessman named Martin Bahmueller (played with unblinking intensity by Joe Welsch), runs a tight ship. He believes people should speak and dress properly, and that when one of his African-American employees speaks in what we called “Ebonics” a few years ago, that person is going to be a “burger-flipper for life.”
Is that a racial thing? This is a businessman, whose customers expect professionalism. Is it racist to expect your employees to speak proper English? The play would have us believe that to even suggest that Ebonics is not a valid way of speaking is already racist, and that forcing your employees to abandon it is even worse. If you disagree with this, well, you must have some latent racism in you, too.
At center stage is New York college professor Alan Harris (Kurt Proctor, speaking in David Mamet-style pauses and interruptions), who has a brilliant black woman in his class who he thinks betrays her intelligence by smacking her gum and speaking in hip-hop slang. A group of young black men attacked him and his wife, possibly injuring his unborn baby; now, he has anger that he doesn’t know how to direct.
Finally, there’s Southerner Mara Lynn Doddson (a marvelously unkempt Mary Parker Williams), whose young boy is autistic and is being treated by Dr. Singh, an Indian “with a dot on his head.” She’s frustrated because she was Homecoming Queen in high school, yet her life has gone nowhere. Meanwhile, all these foreigners have managed to move ahead of her. Where’s the justice in that?
The play generally avoids preachiness, opting instead to shock us with horrible tales of violence and hatred, asking us to identify the sources of racism. Whether it’s jealousy, misdirected anger or breeding, the idea is that racism is everywhere, and we have to admit that before we can conquer it. By finding racism where it probably isn’t, the play does itself a disservice. Nonetheless, the message is powerful, and the acting is as vibrant and compelling as anything you’ll see.