Suzan-Lori Parks, White Noise (directed by Polly Findlay, Br/dge Theatre)
I don’t think I’ve seen the stage so deep here. At the back, there is an apartment set, a set of wires room from the back to the entrance to the auditorium, partly above a runway extension to the set. The apartment will be moved closer, and rotate to reveal more, and there is a comfy armchair.
This play is a provocation about race in contemporary America, which could fall flat if you fail to buy the central gambit. It is a chamber piece for four actors, plus unseen voices, including a heckle, though it surprisingly doesn’t rattle round the space. It is a play about well-meaning, woke, essentially nice liberals, who reveal something darker.
Misha (Faith Omole) is a YouTube star with her Ask a Black Woman programme – which she wants to take to the next level – and Ralph (James Corrigan) is her boyfriend, a failing writer who owns a gun range. Ralph used to be lawyer Dawn’s (Helena Wilson) boyfriend, but she is now with failing artist Leo (Ken Nwosu), who used to be Misha’s…
Leo is the central character, although in time all will get to have soliloquys. He has been suffering from insomnia since the age of five and so is evidently not quite is his right mind, which might explain his counter to being assaulted by the police one night in New York.
He needs to be protected. He needs to be a slave. And Ralph is just the white patriarch he needs.
Ralph, understandably, is aghast. But whether there is the underlying racism of pretty well all of us or trying to help out an old friend, he does agree. And it might be that his treatment of Leo is meant to shock him out of the crazy idea or that he does want to be a master. Both the women are shocked, and it rocks the friendship, as Dawn reconsiders her ethics as a lawyer and Misha can use him to help her show.
In the original American productions, much of it was set in a bowling alley, although it had been envisaged as a gun club. The reversion makes the drama more logical, the dual side of Ralph more expected.
But, that conceit? I’m not sure that a Black man in New York as a slave, without or without a label, would be safer. I struggle to go along with the idea that Ralph would go along with it – although clearly he has his own professional issues with ethnic identity which undermine his wokeness. And that link between being woke and being awake is a little too seductive.
The chamber work nature of the play means we’re largely sawn of the context of how America came to be how it is with race – although there are hints of the history of Black resistance. There is one, striking, painful image of slavery, which will stay with me, but I think structurally the play wanders in its last quarter as it gropes towards an undeniably gripping denouement. The algebra of the characters, before and during the play, may be too predictable.
But it makes you think, and makes you laugh – with and at – even as you hope that you would say voluntary slavery is a stupid idea.