Dallas — For a play with the convoluted pedigree of being produced by Churchmouse Productions, an offshoot of Pegasus Theatre at the Bath House Cultural Center, White People, directed by Chad Cline, has an overly simple title.
Surely, playwright J.T. Rogers is sandbagging us. On the surface, the title’s lack of flair seems appropriate for this play in which three actors don’t interact. But as the monologues wear on, the dissimilarities begin to loom larger, begging the audience to bristle at painting these people with the same brush as the title does. But by the time you’ve decided that they are all so different, new details emerge revealing commonalities. The only thing certain is that this playwright has firmer grasp on the nuances of racism than his title would let on.
A kitchen table, a park bench and an office desk describe the characters as much as the three areas of the thrust playing area at the Bath House. Director Cline allows the actors to move into the center during their monologues, but the real action of the play takes place inside the characters. We are given an all access pass to the personal script that plays in their heads, reasoning, defending and rationalizing what they think and do.
Jason Folks plays, Alan, a professor pondering the city square presided over by a statue of the last director general of what would become New York: Peter Stuyvesant. Folks keeps Alan engaging despite the lecture worthy text by employing a healthy dose of comic timing. It’s clear, though, that Alan has weightier worries than the legacy of the authoritarian leader.
Charissa Lee plays, Mara Lynn Dodson, a housewife who is burdened as much by her former small town high school glories as she is with her gravely ill child. As she waits for her former wrestling champ husband to take them to a last ditch surgery attempt, she wallows in what might have been, hanging her disappointment on any skin color not her own. Ms. Lee does her best on behalf of Mara Lynn but the character’s naked enmity makes it hard to empathize.
Jack O’Donnell plays Martin Bahmueller, an aggressive attorney sent by the home office to shape up this underperforming satellite. His reasons for demanding a high standard are, on the face, well reasoned, but it’s clear he doth protest too much. Whether it’s enforcing dress code or the music on the radio in the mailroom, he’s sensitive about when his demands cross racial lines. Martin wraps his fascism with so much rationalization that his surprise when the fist, gloved as it is, comes around and slaps him back is total devastation. Mr. O’Donnell wins our sympathy by making the turn powerful, not pathetic. It’s a performance not to miss.
Playwright Rogers sets a racism range from the lazy, big-blanket bigotry of Mara Lynn to the disciplined self-righteousness of Martin. His thesis seems to be that strife is as common as the desire to find an “other” to blame it on. Skin color makes for an easy shorthand but class or culture work just as well. The hope he offers comes from the humble professor whose trials are no less than his fellow whites, but he plans to pry them from their seemingly magnetic resting place.
This play is a think piece that happens to have some terrific acting. At Thursday’s performance, there was a talk back that lasted an hour, attended by almost the entire audience. Partially because of the Dallas Morning News panelists, partially because of participants from the Dallas Dinner Table, an organization that sponsors dinners designed to encourage communications about race and ethnicity, but mostly due to a deceptively deep play with a weak title.
Sandbagging, indeed, Mr. Rogers.