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A CurtainUp Review
Mara Lynn (Rebecca Brooksher) is a poor Southern housewife with a very sick little boy who needs a very radical and dangerous surgery. Her conviction that the Indian neurosurgeon looks down on her, the mounting concern for her son and a husband who's trapped in a dead-end job having to answer to a Latino foreman leads her to lash out at immigrants and her lack of opportunity.
Alan Harris (Michael Shulman) is a prototypical professor. He lives in Stuyvesant Town, adores New York, and lectures passionately about Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch years of early New York. He has one particular gifted student, Felicia, who hails from Bed-Stuy. He’s morbidly fascinated by her world— the world of gold teeth, gang signs, and hood slang. He’s not so fascinated when two black men accost him and his pregnant wife. While he tries to bury his anger, his relationship with Felicia will never be the same.
Martin Bahmueller (John Dossett) is a partner at a prestigious St. Louis law firm. He’s a perfectionist who rules his firm with an iron fist—. a stickler for correct punctuation and grammar. . .no button-down collars, no loafers, no rap music on the radio. His brand of racism is perhaps the most insidious. What's more, he freely owns up to it, wondering why he must treat his black secretary with kid gloves. His is the most tragic story, however. His hard-nosed perfectionism, combined with his (perhaps too literal) black-and-white view of the world, drive his teenage son to commit a truly horrific crime.
While the stories and characters held my interest, I was ultimately disappointed. Playwright J.T. Rogers doesn’t go far enough. We’re treated to a panorama of racism and liberal guilt, but there’s a lack of commitment on everyone’s part. The characters aren’t truly ashamed, yet neither do they fully embrace their feelings. They waffle back and forth— first angry, then embarrassed, then defiant. Don’t get me wrong, that’s exactly how it works in real life. However, if a play is going to address racism in such an upfront manner, one expects danger, discomfort, and full devotion to the issue.
Gus Reyes’s direction keeps the actors in separate spheres, both literally and figuratively. Michael Shulman, Rebecca Brooksher and John Dossett are all fine perfomers and they do what they can with the material. But neither Martin nor Mara Lynn change or grow during the course of the play, and it’s hard to maintain momentum in a play with no real action, in which two of the three characters are static.
White People was first staged eight years ago, before we had an African-American president so, frankly it was a little odd watching this in what was still a room full of white people (at least at the performance I attended). No one seemed uncomfortable or embarrassed despite the subject matter. Is liberal guilt or, for that matter racism, dead now that Barack Hussein Obama is our president? I can't help wondering how this would play in Bed-Stuy -- or at the White House?
Editor's note: To read our review of Rogers' The Overwhelming, another worthy but ultimately disappointing play, go here.