Cry Me a River of Self-Pity

Michael_Shulman_White_PeopleTired, melodramatic, cliché-ridden: These are attributes one hopes to avoid in a play touted as “a candid look at race in contemporary America,” but sadly they are all too present in the New York premier of J.T. Rogers’s White People at Atlantic Stage 2. Even though friends had asked me how a play called White People could be any good, I had resisted their dismissive response, hoping to hear something fresh or illuminating, hoping even for a few moments of confrontation with the dark underbelly of American beliefs. But Rogers’s 90 minutes of intercut monologues just do not go anywhere near real revelations. The three characters are simply stereotypes, sets of ideologies and resentments, rather than people with individual lives.

Consider Mara Lynn (Rebecca Brooksher), the southern white woman, who went to college for a year or so but ended up in a blue-collar marriage with Earl the truck driver. She has grown tired and disappointed in their cramped life, and wonders why she -- a former cheerleader and homecoming queen -- has ended up on the bottom. As she cries out in dismay, “We were here first!” (meaning white people). So then, why, she wonders, can a black bank manager treat her with disdain, or an Indian doctor look right through her? Mara Lynn’s rhetoric is the familiar outraged whine of “white trash” characters over the last fifty years. Some version of this type often appeared in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. In fact, Mara Lynn could be living at any time in recent history. She is hardly contemporary.

And that could be said of the two male characters as well. One is a college teacher in New York City, an historian in love with the glorious myth of Peter Stuyvesant, that old peg-legged Dutch racist who governed New Amsterdam in the 17th Century. Alan (Michael Shulman, pictured), the professor, talks on and on (and repetitions of the various characters add a good 20 minutes to the play) about his teaching and his apathetic students. The one really excellent one, Felicia, is black and looks like a drug dealer or a baby mamma. He regularly mentions how surprised and happy he is each time she speaks up in a class and blows his ideas away with her argument.

The third character is a pompous lawyer from Brooklyn, a real self-loving windbag named Martin (John Dossett), who has ended up running a law office in St. Louis (apparently to spread the geography of this play around as a way to make it truly “American,” although the far west was left out). This guy is in a rage at all his associates and employees because they don’t know how to dress or talk like professionals. He gives endless diatribes about knowing the rules and playing by the rules. Martin’s one of those self-righteous guardians of the language who doesn’t seem to comprehend that language changes. He resents his black secretary because in the age of political correctness he can’t correct her grammatical errors in legal documents without risking the label of “racist.” He also has troubles with his family. His fifteen-year-old son won’t remove his head phones and talk to his dad. What a surprise.

So these three disaffected souls represent American whites. All three lack subtlety and nuance. Their issues are obvious, their rages and philosophizing boring, and their final dramatic climaxes straight out of the tabloids. I guess I expected too much. But not a single moment of the play in any way surprised me. The acting was overall effective, if mostly pitched at too similar an RPM. Actors, unfortunately, often love parts where they can rant and rave and spill their guts. Gratuitous violence is also much appreciated as way to get to the audience.

I probably wouldn’t trash J.T. Rogers’s play so totally if it were not for the fact that he has already won a theatre award (from Time Out New York), had a play debut at the National Theatre in London, and has another ready to open at the Tricycle in London this April. So he is someone who one might expect would have something to say. But if his big revelation is that some American white people are racists, well, that’s just not too thrilling a discovery. Some Americans are into S & M; some Americans suffer from late-tax-filing syndrome (more than a few), and some care more about their dogs and cats than they do about their fellow human beings. But If I’m going to see a play about such people, I’m looking for insight. Sadly, White People provides no insight. - Victoria Sullivan

White People is at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, through Feb. 22, 2009.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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