These White People Have Problems

Remember how the election of Barack Obama was supposed to define the era of "post-racial" America? That lasted about a minute. Then out they came, the ravening racists. Liberated at last, they no longer felt constrained about expressing their abhorrent views in public. That includes those in public office.

Remember Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" at the president during the State of the Union speech? Nobody ever did that to Bush 43, the lyingest president in history. Has any other American president been harangued for his birth and college records, as President Obama was by combover troll Donald Trump? Has any white first lady ever been called "uppity," as Michelle Obama has been by right-wing radio zeppelin Rush Limbaugh?

Playwright J.T. Rogers' play White People, now onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center in an earnest production by Churchmouse, pre-dates the Obama years, but it's still a relevant, if simplistic, discussion of racism from three perspectives. Three white people's perspectives, that is, over one hour and 40 intermissionless minutes of interlocking monologues.

Rogers, a New York playwright, seems to be making the case in his play that some people are born racist, some try to fight racist attitudes toward minorities that might occasionally bubble up and some don't even recognize their own prejudices until they come back to haunt them later in life. It's a play about issues, serious ones. But as so many plays about issues are, it takes itself far too seriously and sacrifices character development for solemn editorializing.

The three characters are broad-brush stereotypes of white people who have problems with brown people. The most nuanced of the trio is Alan (played by Jason Folks), a liberal New York City college professor who lectures at length on the courage of Manhattan's early Dutch colonizers, excusing their sometimes homicidal treatment of natives, Jews and Quakers. Stammering through his speeches, Alan speaks admiringly of a black college student he teaches, Felicia, who has a sharp intellect but wears braided hair and "earrings the size of small planets." Eventually Alan gets to the reason he's become conflicted about African Americans. He and his pregnant wife were mugged by black teens in the park. The attack has injured their unborn child. He doesn't want to hate and fear minorities, but, the play asks, why shouldn't he, given this good reason to?

A Brooklyn-born lawyer transferred to run a firm in St. Louis, the character called Martin (Jack O'Donnell) defines what he calls "people of a certain pigment" by their status in the business world. The black mailroom workers won't advance in the company if they don't stop playing "that music" on the job (Martin prefers Dialogues of the Carmelites, which doesn't seem like a better alternative). And it infuriates him when his black executive assistant pops her gum and makes spelling errors when she types his memos. Martin has tightened up the dress code at work, he says, because "I don't want to see gold teeth and I don't want to see your butt cheeks." He's all Brooks Brothers. "Egyptian cotton," he says, pulling at his crisp blue shirt. "French cuffs say 'I make money.' A button-down collar says 'I'm wearing Fruit of the Loom briefs and they are stained.'"

The third member of this dramatic triptych is Mara Lynn (Charissa Lee), a twangy North Carolina housewife married to a blue-collar drunk named, of course, Earl. She pines for her glory days as a college beauty queen who dated the football star. Now she's packing a suitcase for a trip to a big city hospital where an Indian-born doctor, a specialist, can help her son who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy. She purses her lips as she talks about feeling condescended to by the doctor. How dare he talk to a white lady that way? "All these new people," she hisses. "They need to wait their turn. We were here first!"

Directed by Chad Cline, this production of White People is two-thirds of the way there in terms of strong, subtle acting that imbues the preachy monologues with some humanity. Folks and O'Donnell give their characters, the brainy academic and the simmering-mad lawyer, rich inner lives and they keep their emotions almost cinematically beneath the surface. O'Donnell has not a trace of Brooklyn-ness about him, but he is good at setting Martin on a slow boil, working up to the story of his character's son, who commits a terrible act of violence against a young black woman. As the offspring of a well-educated, white-collar racist, the young man has grown up to be an angry skinhead. It's what happens to the carefully taught.

In comparison with the men, Charissa Lee is a cartoon, pouring too much molasses on her Southern accent. Her Mara Lynn isn't supposed to be likable — she's the woman you don't want to sit next to on a long flight because you just know she'll use the N-word and spout Bible verses — but she should at least be believable folding laundry, which this actress isn't.

Cline has staged the play by dividing the intimate Bath House acting space into thirds. Folks sits on a park bench and occasionally walks into the light down center stage. O'Donnell orbits a small desk stage left (and that desk is a little shoddy for an attorney running a large firm). Lee circles a bare wooden table stage right. The characters don't interact. They speak directly to us, though it's not clear whom playwright Rogers imagines they're addressing. It's one of those conundrums of plays like this: Characters confessing terrible secrets to the fourth wall for no logical reason.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner