White is pure gold.
James Ijames’ audacious and hilarious new play takes on racism, sexism, and a handful of other isms. It’s a comedy, but its message is serious. It’s bold, outlandish, insightful, and as exciting a play as you’re likely to see this year.
White opens with a speech to the audience by Jane, the new director of a prominent art museum. Finding that the institution’s “perspective was decidedly homogenous” – in other words, almost all the artists represented on its walls are white men – Jane announces that her first exhibit will “reflect the true range of America.” Unfortunately, that means she must exclude her old college pal Gus, who doesn’t fit the minority profile she’s looking for.
“I’m gay!” Gus protests. “Doesn’t that count for anything?”
“Of course it does,” Jane tells him reassuringly. “You’re my favorite gay.”
Shut out by Jane, Gus comes up with a plan to get his art into the show anyway: he hires an African American actress to pose as the artist behind his newest painting. At that point, White transforms from a gentle satire of the art world to a sharp deconstruction of racial, ethnic, gender and social stereotypes, examined from multiple points of view.
One of the best things about White is the way it subverts dramatic formulas. When you see that Gus creates white-on-white paintings, you may think that this will be a retread of Tina Howe’s Museum or Yasmina Reza’s Art, two plays that got laughs from the same subject. And when you hear Gus’ scheme, you may think that his painting style is so distinctive that there’s no way he can pull the scheme off. But it turns out that making fun of the art world isn’t Ijames primary subject, and finding out whether Gus pulls off the scheme turns out not to be the play’s point. (Besides, trust me – there’s no way you’ll ever figure out the ending of this one ahead of time.)
Instead, White focuses on Gus’ relationship with Vanessa, the actress who becomes his stand-in. Vanessa adopts a new name, a suitably sassy persona, an African-style wardrobe, and a meticulous backstory (“When do you think I read Their Eyes Were Watching God?”). But as Gus and Vanessa quibble over what accent and character traits she should assume, she resists his attempts at control; if she’s playing the part, she’ll be the one exerting power. “I’m the statement,” she insists. “This is all mine.”
Eventually Gus’ self-justifying arguments get more and more feverish (“Why is a white man in America demanding his rights always seen as crazy?”), leading him into conflict not only with Vanessa but with Tanner, his Asian American boyfriend. Their easygoing relationship takes a dramatic turn when they learn how different their racial attitudes are.
Everyone in White has a different perspective, and everyone has a voice worth listening to. And none is more worthy of attention than Ijames, who turns every cliché he introduces on its head. Early on, he gets some laughs out of the stereotype of gay white men who idolize black divas (with Owens as a fever dream version of Diana Ross); it’s uproarious, but as the play goes on, Ijames explores the concept further, revealing it to have a great deal of complexity. And while Owens’ dashiki-wearing alter ego first appears as a figure from a farce, the play’s surprisingly dramatic finale proves there’s much more to her than just a punchline.
Not every joke lands; an extended riff on The Cosby Show falls apart because of inconsistencies in Gus’ character (he supposedly knows nothing about the show, except when it’s convenient). But the best lines are biting and perceptive.
Director Malika Oyetimein does superb, fast-paced work here, keeping the cast on its toes and maintaining a light tone that never feels obvious. The production’s technical aspects are excellent, with Colin McIlvaine’s sleek set design, LeVonne Lindsay’s ornate costumes for Vanessa, and Mike Inwood’s lighting (with a different color suffusing the set at every scene change) adding to the show’s flair.
Jessica Bedford gives a sly edge to the patrician Jane, while Justin Jain slowly progresses from amiable to indignant as Tanner; seeing his face turn red with rage in his final confrontation with Gus is a moment that scorches with its energy. And as Gus, Jamison Foreman pulls off the neat trick of making his character harsher and harsher without ever losing his sympathetic core.
But the show really belongs to Jaylene Clark Owens, giving a masterful performance as Vanessa. Jumping in and out of reality and in and out of multiple personas, she shows off great vocal control and superb comic and dramatic skills. She is, as Vanessa says of herself at one point, “a damn delight.”
Subverting expectations, cracking wise and opening eyes, White is quite a statement. Ijames fills it with twists, right up to its final moments. You’ll want to be along for the ride.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.