A strong ensemble cast keeps a grim work fresh
A strong ensemble cast keeps a grim work fresh

White Frightens

This just in: White people have a lot of secret racial prejudice. J.T. Rogers hammers home this theme in White People, now playing at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. The three-character show is more poetry than drama, a series of interlaced monologues that centers on deep-buried anger in white America: A woman in North Carolina (Bridget Connors) struggles with poverty, spousal infidelity, and her young son's birth defects as she vents her rage at a Mexican supervisor, an Indian doctor, an African-American bank manager -- all of whom she views as having cheated her of her rightful share of the American Dream. A brainy, awkward professor in Manhattan (Brian Louis Hoffman) tries to connect with a black student, but after he and his pregnant wife are mugged by black teens, a sudden swell of rage reveals his deep-seated prejudices. In Missouri, a hard-driving, Brooklyn-born attorney (Bruce Miller) has little patience for less-than-professional dress and behavior at his firm, but his certainty is deeply shaken when his estranged son is arrested for a grotesque racial crime.

White People is significant for two reasons. First, Rogers serves up the subject of racial prejudice with downright ugly impact. This is no feel-good "why can't we be friends" message. Rogers's white people range from fearfully angry at worst to stunned and bewildered at best. There are no answers here, but the questions revealed are stark indeed. The second blessing is the chance to catch three fine performances in what really could be termed a spoken opera. The cast is strong, but Miller is outstanding. He plays the attorney in a fast-talking monotone, managing the difficult feat of making a humorless character seem very funny, but when the scarier aspects of the lawyer's tale are finally revealed, Miller really grabs you by the throat. Rafael de Acha's direction, as is his style, is subtle and effective, aided by Nate Rausch's evocative, thoughtful sound design.

White People makes its point in its first fifteen minutes, then bludgeons you with it for another hour in this intermissionless show. While Rogers is to be commended for taking on this subject, he doesn't offer much discourse beyond his basic statement and the characters are more representations of class -- blue collar, middle-class professional, and management -- than complex individuals. There is also a certain ironic context to all of this. This play's stories of white people who, living segregated lives, are unable to adjust to encounters with "other" people after all those years of seeing minorities as outsiders to be avoided, ends up with a big price tag for each. Yet once again we have an all-white cast performing for an all-white audience. What might happen, one wonders, if this play upped its theatrical impact (and added a new perspective) by countercasting actors of color to play these white characters, or if this production could tour to minority communities to generate the kind of interracial, interethnic communication that modern America woefully lacks? As it now plays, though, White People remains a powerful, disturbing theatrical event.


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