“My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers—even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
You know that feeling when you just want to say something so badly that you feel you might burst if you don’t? You know what it’s like to hear everyone around you chime in about a topic, but you’re cautious about speaking out, despite the fact that most of the others have no idea what they’re talking about? You know how the world can often seem spinning out of control around you, but if you dare to point that out you’re somehow blamed for whatever chaos is perceived?
Luna Malbroux seems intimately acquainted with those frustrations, as they were the catalyst for (if I’m not mistaken) her first play, How to Be a White Man. It’s a heartfelt screed against racism and sexism from someone who has been the subject of both for far too long. It’s not only written by a Black woman, but makes her in the lead, giving an all-too-necessary forum for a voice that is often silenced for being both Black and a woman. It’s a show that aims to point a funhouse mirror towards a self-congratulatory White liberal society that’s just as culpable for contemporary racism as the red-hatted hate-mongers that still support the Oompa-Loompa-in-Chief.
And yet… it’s recognizing the necessity for a show like this that makes the show itself so disappointing.
Luna is a stand-up comedian. She doesn’t make a lot of money from it (hell, sometimes she doesn’t make any money from it), but it’s her passion. It seems as if she’s on the cusp of making it big, but – as the old saying goes – she still has to work twice as hard to get half as far. The funny thing is, no one would ever question her if she were a White man.
With that in mind, Luna drafts a nine-rule manifesto with the intention of acting as if she were just that: entitled; unapologetic; crass; prone to sunburn. This is Luna’s quest on how to be a White man.
I took my time writing this review. I didn’t want to write it immediately after seeing the show last Saturday because I don’t think my thoughts would have been as well-refined as they are now. Then again, maybe I should have – sometimes an off-the-cuff reaction can be just as pointed as it is sincere. But I wanted my thoughts to be focused when commenting on all the ways the show is not.
Malbroux (who co-wrote the script with Red Light Lit’s Jennifer Lewis, a White woman) has a lot to say with this script, and every part of it is something that needs to be said. The problem is that without any sense of focus, the play just comes off as a series of ideas thrown at a wall to see which ones stick. She wants people – White people in particular – to take a serious look at how they mansplain, silence, and appropriate the very Black culture they claim to defend and respect. But almost none of these ideas get the appropriate amount of “breathing room” they need before she’s moved onto the next topic.
And that may have more to do with Malbroux’s previous writing credentials. As a stand-up, sketch writer, and op-ed author, most of her writing is short-form. This works fine when the play is going for self-contained jokes, but it doesn’t sustain a full-length narrative. For instance: after a set, Luna is greeted by a White fan (Ashley Gennarelli) who wants to touch her hair, then feels offended when Luna won’t allow it. Later, we see flashback to Luna experimenting with BDSM, which goes disastrously because (as Malbroux herself has previously written) a lot of Black people aren’t too keen on engaging in something involving chains and whips. These two scenes prove that if the show had just been a proper sketch production, it may have done better.
Another reason the overarching narrative doesn’t work is because Malbroux and Lewis can’t decide which one is the proper narrative. The play opens with Luna in some limbo state where she encounters two glamorous Black women (Jessica Jones and Jennifer Greene, who also play other roles) who inform her that she’ll never be on the level of such privileged White guys as woman-beater Christian Bale, price-gouger Martin Shrkeli, or the Orange Menace. She decides to act as if she does have their privilege and creates the nine-rule manifesto “How to Be a White Man”. It’s never explained whether or not this scene is a dream, and the play is occasionally interrupted by Luna and other cast members soliloquizing to the audience as one of the rules (1: If you want it, take it; 6: If it’s not about you, make it about you.) is projected in the background.
The second plot involves Luna’s life a bisexual Black stand-up, featuring encounters with her put-upon trauma ward girlfriend (Akaina Ghosh), her homophobic parents (Derek Jones and Jessica Jones), her Latina BFF (Linda Girón), and several other characters, most of whom don’t get names or appearances beyond a single scene. Whenever a new soliloquy is read, it comes off like a commercial interruption in the regularly-scheduled program of “The Life of Luna the Stand-Up,” with neither plot adding much to either. In fact, Luna doesn’t even seem to follow any of the rules she’s creating – she just seems to show awareness of them and continues on as usual, defeating the purpose of telling the rules in the first place.
What’s more, as noble the intentions of giving soliloquy’s to nearly every character – from her father, who waxes on about being a Black man in America, to the mother (Gennarelli) of a kid she babysits (Kevin Glass). It was obviously meant to show that everyone has their own history and perspective, but it once again draws the story away from any central focus because it just wants to put everything out there.
There are a lot of good ideas in How to Be a White Man that occasionally get good execution, but the story is all over the place, and that hinders it. Revelations like Luna still carrying a chip on her shoulder for a White ex-boyfriend (Glass) go nowhere, and a great idea like the “Oppression Olympics” (in which every marginalized person competes to see who’s more oppressed) seem better on paper than in practice.
Or maybe it would have worked better in a proper sketch show. As it stands, How to Be a White Man has moments of brilliance, but it’s so excited to say so much that a lot of it can’t be heard clearly.
How to Be a White Man is scheduled to run until the 1st of July at PianoFight in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.