The characters' responses to trauma are far fresher than their philosophizing.
The three “White People” performing JT Rogers’ fugue of monologues fulfill two functions, not unlike the Angelenos careening through Paul Haggis’ similarly themed “Crash.” They’re archetypes, expressing at length a range of majority-culture attitudes on ethnic difference. Yet each is also a distinct individual, who suffers a collision with another race and is thereby challenged. Their responses to trauma are far fresher than their philosophizing in the Road Theater Company production.
One class extreme is represented by Martin (Tom Knickerbocker), an attorney who has fled Brooklyn for St. Louis “to live where my children will be privileged.” He bemoans the decline of literate discourse, Ebonics a particular bugaboo. At society’s other, but no less resentful end is Mara Lynn (Avery Clyde), a North Carolina trailer mom bewildered by minorities’ upward mobility in a world former high school cheerleaders once ruled. “We have priority. We were here first,” she insists.
These folks’ unconscious bigotry becomes all too clear, all too soon. Knickerbocker’s genial cluelessness keeps him compelling, while Clyde’s premature uncorking of the emotional jug — wringing a passion to tatters way too early — renders her less so.
The middle ground, and the show’s pride of place, are occupied by Mark Doerr as Alan, an earnest academic who winces when committing any p.c. misstep. An anthropologist by avocation, he’s fascinated by historical figures whose moral certainty coexisted with harshest cruelty, among them Peter Stuyvesant, noted 17th-century empire builder and genocide practitioner.
Prize pupil Felicia, a stereotypical fly girl type with a probing mind, also commands Alan’s attention, at least until his moment of truth on a New York street. Doerr segues with startling clarity from his generalized musings to the anguish of betrayal, America’s ambivalence about race literally picked up in his haunted eyes. We may not wholly believe in his epiphany but we’re warmed by it, as he utters one of the most achingly beautiful closing lines in recent American drama.
Helmer Douglas Clayton infuses each monologue with visual dash by using the other two thesps as living statues, moving in and out of Christian Epps’ atmospheric shadows to assume silent attitudes. It’s an apt metaphorical reminder that we eke out existence in the company of others, while remaining fundamentally alone.
“White People” runs in repertory with Rogers’ “Madagascar” into July.