“Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.”
– Paul Mooney, “Ask a Black Dude”, Chappelle’s Show (s01e05 – 2003)
Sarah Baartman isn’t an historical figure that often pops into the public consciousness, but she should be. When you hear Black women shouting to the heavens of how they’re constantly exploited, fetishized, and dehumanized on a regular basis, Sarah Baartman – known in her time by the derogatory moniker of “Hottentot Venus” – is whom they’re channeling. She was stolen from her homeland, spent her formative years being paraded around like a circus exhibit, and posthumously had her voluptuous remains displayed like spoils of war before the bourgeoisie. She was literally a Black woman reduced to “object” status by White men.
Though Baartman is never mentioned by name, I have to believe she was on the mind of playwright James Ijames when he wrote White, which is having its West Coast premiere courtesy of Shotgun Players. Like Baartman’s “Venus” persona, the Black woman at the center of Ijames’ play is paraded around by the White characters as if she were a status symbol – the ultimate icon of “woke” White sensibilities. These supposedly-progressive White Millennial show her off as a visual shorthand to let all of their critics know that they haven’t a discriminating bone in their body.
But – as Black people know all too well – it’s when White people most loudly shout that they aren’t racist when they most often reveal themselves to be just that.
Gus is a successful artist. Not just by the standards of his social circle – he’s achieved a level of success that most of his peers could never imagine; so much so that he’s able to give up his teaching position to focus on his painting. Of course, he’ll be the first to tell you that his being a young White male has nothing to do with it (he’s also Gay). Nevertheless, it rubs him the wrong way when longtime friend Jane informs him that his work is wrong for the upcoming “New America” show in her prestigious gallery. In Gus’s eyes, he’s being “discriminated against because [he’s] White.”
Refusing to take this lying down, Gus hatches a plan: he’ll hire a Black woman and pass his work off as hers. Using Black actress Vanessa as his personal avatar, the two create “Balkonaé,” an in-your-face Black/Lesbian/Vegan painter whose work just happens to bear a striking resemblance to Gus’s. The plan seems flawless, save for one lingering detail: Vanessa is still a human being; one who has a lot to say about how Black women – this character in particular – are presented to the world.
If you’ve ever read my reviews before, you’ll know that the works I find most frustrating are the ones that do several things wrong when getting so much else right. White is such a show.
As both a Black artist and born-native San Franciscan, I’ve seen Gus’s self-entitlement portrayed first-hand. If you’ve ever seen the 1997 KQED documentary The Castro, you’ll likely recall actor Brian Freeman’s calling out of the hypocrisy of SF’s historical “Gay Mecca”. Yes, it was a safe haven… for Gay White men – people of color and those on other parts of the LGBTQ spectrum would often still face the very racism and misogyny they were trying to escape. The Gay White men would rarely admit to it – if ever – somehow believing that being the victims of discrimination absolved them from any discrimination they would dole out.
This double standard is perfectly personified in the character of Gus, the sort of hypocritical White Gay male who insists he has “an inner Black woman” (yes, he actually says that out loud). As with the characters of the recently-viewed In Braunau and Two Mile Hollow (feel free to read my reviews), Gus is exemplary of how White privilege creates blind spots in even the most well-intentioned of progressives. His racism is the most venomous because he refuses to acknowledge that he’s even capable of such behavior; that his being Gay and having an Asian boyfriend in Tanner makes him bulletproof. Whereas Jane is at least honest – in that she’s an unapologetic opportunist – Gus is blind to the fact that he’s elitist.
Now… where the play both flies and falters is with the character of Vanessa/Balkonaé.
On the one hand, it filled my ebony heart with joy the way she refused to put up with Gus’s bullshit. When she first meets him, narrative cliché insists that she be briefly hesitant before ultimately falling for his pitch – as if his final words were a magical spell that would make her do his bidding. Not this play. This play has her walking the fuck out of his studio with her head held high and her dignity intact. When she does return (there wouldn’t be a plot otherwise), it’s on her own terms and an insistence that the character “Balkonaé” be infused with much more of Vanessa than Gus would have wanted. The scene in which Balkonaé is introduced to Jane, and she plays both Jane and Gus like a cheap accordion, is hilarious and somehow touching.
And yet… I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my problems with the character. First, there’s the fact the character is the keystone to the entire story, yet she has the least amount of stagetime. The story is told entirely from Gus’s perspective, which, paradoxically, makes it yet another story about a White dude who just happens to be around PoC. Maybe I just would have liked more time with the most intriguing character of Ijames’ script.
Then there’s the incident that I won’t mention in detail, as it happens at play’s climax. Suffice it to say, it involves dissociative identity disorder, apropos of nothing. Had this been established earlier in the play – like Gus’s visions Diana Ross as his guardian angel – then it wouldn’t have irked me so much. But the fact that it comes out of nowhere seems a desperate plot device. What’s more, it both does and doesn’t rob her of her own voice right when she needs it most. It’s an important progression for the character that could easily be dismissed with “that wasn’t really her saying that”. Gus gets to finally speak unfiltered, Jane gets to finally speak unfiltered, Tanner spends the entire play speaking unfiltered. For a story about how Black women need to be listened to, that sequence should have been deleted, going straight into the powerful speech that follows. Otherwise, it suggests that Black women who speak their mind are crazy.
Thankfully, the flaws of the script are minimal. However, the production aspects of the play are spot-on. As directed by Cutting Ball’s M. Graham Smith, the cast strikes the right balance of humor and pathos. In the wrong hands, all of these characters could become the very caricatures the play is trying to put to rest.
The last time I saw Gus actor Adam Donovan, he was swinging through the Berkeley Playhouse as Tarzan. Here, he shows the right amount of pretentiousness as the privileged White dude unable to see past his own self-importance. I haven’t seen Santoya Fields before, but her portrayal of Vanessa/Balkonaé (and Gus’s vision of Diana Ross) is memorable. Fields has a winning scene in which Vanessa acts out her favorite Cosby episode, perfectly nailing the “pissed off Phylicia Rashad” persona. Although her Gollum/Sméagol scene at the climax doesn’t work, that has more to do with how it was written than how Fields acts it (though it may have helped if Smith directed her to look in more than one direction).
Luisa Frasconi was a mainstay of the now-defunct Impact Theatre, but is now more often seen in North Bay productions. Though she doesn’t seem to appear in BART-accessible plays as often, she’s no less a delight when she does appear. Having known a couple of local gallery workers I’m afraid to ask which one she was channeling for the silver-tongued Jane. I last saw Jed Parsario in Magic Theatre’s Gangster of Love, where his performance gave more than what the patchwork script could provide. Though the character Tanner doesn’t ask as much of him physically, he nevertheless brings heart to a character that would otherwise just be “the boyfriend”.
And, as this is a Shotgun show, the technical details are great. This may be one of my favorite Nina Ball sets – and that’s saying something. The set begins as the three featureless walls seen in the photo above. Over the course of the play, those walls slide from side-to-side, revealing Tanner’s contemporary apartment, Gus’s brick-wall loft, and the gallery of the play’s opening and climax (thanks to projections by Erin Gilley). There is, at one point, a see-through wall used for a fantasy sequence, but I wouldn’t dare reveal when it appears.
That particular scene is a standout for the already-excellent light work by Ray Oppenheimer. Cliff Carruthers’ sounds bring another layer of realism and fantasy to a play that attempts to blur the lines between the two. But, as much as I could praise every crew member by name, I’ll finish by spotlighting the work of costumer Ulises Alcala. It’s not just the modern day wardrobe that works well for the character, but the Jet magazine-centerfold approach taken to Fields’ characters. As Diana Ross, Fields is dressed in several sparkly numbers that you’d think Alcala could never top. Yet that very thing happens when Balkonaé arrives at the gallery in a red crushed-velvet dress that Pam Grier would love. (No specific wig master/mistress is listed, so I assume that, too, is the work of Alcala.)
I mentioned in my Two Mile Hollow review that I seem to be seeing a lot of shows that call out White privilege. I’m not complaining, mind you, just noting the fact that they all seemed to appear at once. All have been written by PoC and none of them have been perfect. They all have great ideas, but each falls into the trap of being so energized by the idea that they wind up stumbling at a crucial point in the play.
White is such a play. It’s well-acted, -directed, and -written, but it accidentally contradicts itself in its own finale. For a play about the importance of the voice of the Black woman, the only Black woman in the play is the one who speaks the least. And that’s a problem.
White is scheduled to run until the 5th of August at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 40 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.