White people, the sociological group, desperately need space to talk about race, especially whiteness. Unfortunately, White People, the play, by Brooklyn playwright J.T. Rogers, is not that space.
Instead, it's Driving Miss Daisy for the 21st century.
Our qualm is not with Puzzle Piece's staging of the play or even D.B Schroeder's direction, but the text itself. Puzzle Piece's production is deft, and the acting is often luminescent. It's all fine. But the play, described as "controversial" by the three-year-old theater, is an enormous missed opportunity to do some of the anti-racist work that's desperately needed in a country in which black boys are 21 times more likely to be shot by police, to print just one of a litany of sickening statistics. And while on the surface not immediately offensive, White People often ends up reinforcing some of those structures that keep white oppression in place.
Before we start in on this, we want to get a couple of definitions clear: Racism is a system of oppression wherein one race systematically oppresses another racial group. Racism is a system, like capitalism, Judaism, and romanticism, and it takes place on the societal level. Prejudice is different. It takes place on the personal level, and is an unwarranted and unreasonable assumption that an individual holds against another group or individual. Racism: system. Prejudice: personal. This is why claims of "reverse racism" are absurd.
White People is ultimately about prejudice.
The second thing we want to make clear is that white people, as a race, hold their own traits, cultural norms, and societal touchstones. This seems like a given, but it's easy to miss and often is in our culture. As a society, we often slip into thinking of "race" as a deviation from whiteness, with white being normal and everyone else an aberration. This is a facet of Anglocentrism and assumes that white is the center, the star around which all other racial planets orbit. This is why, for example, The Cosby Show is often described as a "black" television show, but Jackass is almost never defined as a "white" show.
Originally we had intended to characterize White People as a little 101, unsophisticated or entry level, and bemoan the lack of our cultural offerings concerning race — this is the best we have? But by the end of the show, we realized something unintentionally sinister is happening: The play works to reinforce this Anglocentric view and subtly buttresses these structures of power.
The play consists of three separate monologues on a sparse stage: a "poor white" woman in the South that flirts with cliché (handled well by Laura Heikkinen); an NYC professor, who at the finale, learns a tidy little lesson about race through violence (a solid Matt Siadak); and the most fully drawn, a corporation president in St. Louis (played excellently by Lindel Salow as a twisted Boy Meets World Mr. Feeney) with a skinhead son. Only after his son commits a horrid and — as it's written, excessive, unnecessary, and a little too lyrical — racist crime, does he learn his son is a piece of shit.
All of them are white.
The idea is that the audience will see little bits of themselves in these people and perhaps recognize the latent racism or prejudice within all of us living in a society poisoned by slavery and its accoutrements. The production underlines this, as each character finishes their final monologue sitting in the audience.
The problem is there's no real pushback to the characters themselves within the world of White People. They don't interact with one another, and their arcs all pivot around acts of interracial or self-inflicted violence. They are all defined, not by their whiteness as something specific and definable, but by their descriptions of people of color and violent interactions with other races. White People looks at the gravity and the satellite moons, forgetting the star. Everything but white people.
The play does go after the relatively low-hanging fruit of hypocrisy, the poor white character sneering "we were here first." And to be fair, it does dally with the idea these characters are benefiting from a racist system and that white people should "shut up and listen." All this other stuff could, perhaps, be written off as flaws in the structure or hiccups in craft. It could all be excusable if it weren't for the ending.
It's obvious the playwright is attempting to avoid the ancient trap of finishing with a "message," some sloppy takeaway. Two of the characters' stories end rather unresolved in a feeble attempt that feels like he's trying get away with it. But this has the effect of emphasizing the character that does have a message, the professor from New York. After being attacked by a gang of black boys and calling his best student a "nigger" within his inner monologue, he invites said student to lunch. He then, more than once, admonishes the audience to "fight the good fight."
We understand the need to begin where people are, to start the journey at the starting line. But this play takes way too long to go nowhere and ends up offering a solution to the wrong problem. The answer offered up at the conclusion pertains to prejudice, not racism, and is woefully inadequate at that. It's a touching thought, but it's like trying to change global warming by wearing a sweater. It gives the sense, at best, that everything will be OK if we just get to know one another a little better, that the 20 generations of slavery can be erased after just five of incomplete freedom over lunch.
Puzzle Piece Theater is a great new addition to the Detroit theater community, and we'd like to keep them around. We respect and admire that they're attempting to tackle this delicate and difficult subject. Detroit is the most segregated metro area in America, with a city 83 percent black (Metro Times attended the second night, and it was mentioned in the talkback after the show that the first two black audience members were in attendance that evening) and is just beginning to feel the first rumblings of gentrification and corporate-led racialized development. The conversation, especially around whiteness, is sorely needed. But we need to make sure we're asking the right questions and choosing the right shows.
An updated Driving Miss Daisy is, unfortunately, not that show.
White People runs Nov. 7-9 at the Abreact Performance Space in the Lafayette Lofts at 1301 W. Lafayette. Puzzle Piece does not recommend this performance for those under 18 due to "mature language and situations." Tickets are $15.
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