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A thought provoking White People at The Road Theatre

Posted By Karen Young On June 15, 2010 @ 12:18 am In Arts & Culture,Featured,spotlight,Theater | No Comments

BY AMY LYONS

They suffer under the oppressive heft of disappointment and disillusionment. Life wasn’t supposed to be like this; they were supposed to be dealt better hands; hard work was supposed to result in happiness. They believe in meritocracy and moral uprightness. They don’t understand why things aren’t going as planned.

The three characters in JT Rogers’ “White People” at The Road Theatre have bought into the American Dream, each adopting a belief system that lets them down and leaves them reeling with rage. Their only weapon is blame and they aim it at those who don’t look like them, brown-skinned people who seem to be walking through a fairytale life full of success.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the play is not the common threads of disappointment and anger linking the characters, but the glaring differences in their backgrounds. In the current production, the actors, aided by director Douglas Clayton, approach these differences as the heart of the play, making each character the center of his or her own tragic story rather than a symbol of general white ignorance.

Alan Harris (a deliberatly tongue-tied Mark Doerr) is a New York college professor, a sensitive intellectual who outwardly embraces multiculturalism in his classroom, but battles an inner voice that can’t stop screaming at all black people for a crime committed against his wife by three thugs. Then there’s Mara Lynn Doddson (an effectively jangled Avery Clyde), the North Carolina housewife whose homecoming queen days have given way to a disappointing marriage and a son with serious health problems. Lastly, there’s a tough-talking Midwestern law firm executive, Martin Bahmueller (Tom Knickerbocker), a perfectly dressed, grammatically obsessed work horse who hides his Brooklyn roots while schmoozing his rich neighbors , unknowingly planting monstrous ideas about non-whites in his teenage son’s mind.

Each character feels one-upped by people who aren’t white, but because they each come from such vastly different backgrounds, the story centers on human tendencies toward blame and rage instead of going for blanket white animosity.

Written as a series of monologues addressed to the audience, the play feels undramatic at times with its tendency toward too much “tell” and not enough “show”. Though each actor shows up with a fully realized character, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a “message” play and that Rogers is manipulating his audience. It feels like the playwright is trying to remind us that we all have just a touch of racism lodged somewhere in our hearts or heads, and that if we’d admit it to ourselves we could begin to conquer it or somehow transform it. The problem is that there are lots of people who can think through issues of race without descending into blame or rage. At the end of the play, we’re left thinking that those people just aren’t copping to some deeply hidden truth. In short, that just isn’t true. Nonetheless, the play strikes some important notes about racism, self-doubt and confusion, giving audiences a wealth of important subject matter to ponder.

White People at The Road  Theatre Company through  July 10 5108 Lankershim Blvd. NoHo tel 818 761 8838 Call (866) 811-4111.

Amy Lyons is a professional freelance journalist and theatre critic, with a degree in Theatre Arts and English from UMass, Boston. She started her journalism career at The Boston Globe and is a member of the Drama Critics Circle. Her articles, theatre reviews and photos regularly appear in numerous publications, including the Beverly Press, Valley Life Magazine, the Santa Monica Mirror and www.nohoartsdistrict.com

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