By his own admission, thirty-something Leo has done “everything right” his entire life: good grades, followed all the rules, established himself as a career artist, and has even won a ton of trophies as a bowling champion. But then during one of his habitually sleepless nights when his mid-of-night walk takes him into an upper-class, white neighborhood, the young African American man suddenly finds himself thrown face-down on the sidewalk. Leo harshly discovers what President Obama said in reaction to Trayvon Martin’s death by a white police officer: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Leo being good and doing it right meant little once he as a black man was on the street; and for him, this harsh realization and the bruises on his face lead him to decide, “I feel like doing something crazy.”
In Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise – now in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – Leo is one of four best friends who bonded in college over music and bowling and are now still intimately connected as two, mixed-race couples: Leo and Dawn, Ralph and Misha. On the day of the same night of Leo’s horrific incident, Ralph has learned he was passed over for a tenured position he felt he had been promised (and had already picked out his new office’s furniture) – the position given to a colleague of color whom white Ralph believes is a lousy writer. Ralph – who is also in the midst of a severe writer’s block – is himself thus down in the dumps and depressed when Leo suddenly proposes and Ralph accepts an outlandishly bizarre and rather sick-sounding forty-day contract between then\m – one that will alter their relationship and ultimately the relationships among all four of the friends/lovers.
Throughout her thirty-five years as a professional playwright, Pulitzer Prize winning Suzan-Lori Parks has never shied away from tackling head-on what one of this play’s characters calls a “virus” – that is “racism.” As Misha goes on to explain to us as audience – in one of several, powerful ‘solos’ where characters break the fourth wall to talk directly, eye-to-eye, with the audience – this is a virus “we’ve all got.” She adds,
“Ok, some more than others, ok. The works of the virus are getting more complicated and the rewards are getting more sophisticated.”
When we first meet this close-knit group of friends in their two, coupled relationships, that virus seems not to have infected them at all. They are seemingly loving, happy, and accepting of each other. But here and there we soon detect verbal slip-ups that occur among them where race is at the core of the faux pas, each followed by a quick “I’m sorry … Do you accept my apology?” Once the forty-day countdown begins for Leo and Ralph’s social contract experiment whose goal is supposedly to help the two both find a new peace within themselves, the slip-ups become for all four more and more purposeful and pointed as all their relationships are suddenly exposed to reveal a raw core that each has carefully kept hidden from the others – and maybe even from themselves.
Even before his surprise attack on the sidewalk, Leo was already fighting a life of sleep deprivation and a constant static in his ears of “white noise,” the latter brought on by a sleep machine Ralph once gave him to help induce a night’s rest. So bad was his ailment that even his art had become affected, his having recently lost the patronage of a gallery that once showed his works. Chris Herbie Holland is gripping in his emotion-packed, physically demanding, often frightening performance of Leo. As the young man enters a new, forty-day life for himself that he hopes will free him from the bondage of being a target on the street because of the color of his skin, he also hopes to reawaken his artistic talents. And his dream is that maybe with that security and that renewal, even the miracle of uninterrupted sleep will occur.
Nick Dillenburg is Ralph, a student-favorite, but still-untenured English professor who also happens to be rich due to inheriting the country’s largest franchise of bowling alleys. Called “Righteous Ralph” by his other three pals, the Ralph we initially meet displays a sense of boyish vulnerability and a desire to ensure everyone around him is happy and gets along. The Ralph he becomes day-by-day after signing the half-inch-thick, legal contract with his best friend Leo is a Ralph who undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde-like transformation that sends chills down one’s spine as Nick Dillenburg’s Ralph coolly and without blinking does things that would seemingly be unthinkable by the Ralph we first meet.
That contract – whose true nature for full effect must be learned by attending the play and not from this review – also has major implications for the female halves of the two couples, themselves best friends with secrets that begin to expose themselves as relationships unwind. Dawn (Therese Barbato) is a self-proclaimed “do-gooder” who has devoted as a white woman her still-young legal career to defending young, black men arrested and arraigned in a system with built-in prejudices against them. Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly) hosts a weekly Vlog-cast entitled “Ask-a-Black” where she drops her privileged background of being raised by two caring, professional moms to become a near-caricature of a ‘soul sista’ who with wild animation and in exaggerated “black voice” answers inane, call-in questions like “Why are black women so upset when I want to touch their hair?”
Both Dawn and Misha are out to help the world in her own way, but each also has her own issues and prejudices that have been largely ignored and/or hidden away until the Leo/Ralph contract opens a Pandora Box of feelings, doubts, and bitterness that were always there. In each case, both actresses are superb as they each struggle to ascertain their character’s place in both the larger society around them and in this micro, black/white society of the four friends and two sets of lovers.
Jaki Bradley directs this near-three-hour (with one intermission) outing that never drags nor in the end feels nearly as long as it actually is. Scenes often command hand-gripping-armrest attention while the solo interludes that each actor at one time or another uses to bring all action to a halt are directed in such a way to cause one to lean in and engage with the current speaker almost as if in a one-on-one conversation. Adam Rigg has designed a set that doubles between a stylish, urban apartment and a neighborhood bowling alley. The latter becomes totally realistic as the friends talk and send balls down an alley that ends somewhere under us as an audience with the sound of balls rolling on wood and pins being hit just one part of an outstanding sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman. Shadows play a larger and larger role in the play’s disturbing progression, with Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting (as well as video) design making important contributions. Finally, from delightfully fun, matching bowling outfits to clothes that help define each unique personality, Tilly Grimes’ costume designs are picture-perfect.
As brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks’ script is along with the stunning performances and direction of this Berkeley Rep production, the playwright’s incredible conceit is a contract that is difficult to believe any two, almost lifelong friends would ever sign (or two other friends/lovers would allow them to sign). The situations that unfold as the forty days progress are increasingly inconceivable and shockingly crude and cruel.
At the same time, those scenes are absolutely successful in making the point that in our own society outside this play’s fictional story, Misha is correct when she says, “The social contract has been broken.” The play raises many more questions than it answers; its ending is ambiguous and unsettling; but its message is clear. We in America must wake up fast and not be mesmerized by our own ‘white noise’ that day to day lures us too often to ignore the racial injustice that exists in too many aspects of our world – especially for the currently endangered species of young men of color like Leo. Kudos goes to Artistic Director Johanna Pfaelzer for quickly grabbing this Spring 2019, Public Theater world premiere and giving it a second showing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Rating: 4.5 E
White Noise continues through November 10, 2019 on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company