By John Quinn
It can be an uncomfortable experience when a theater company holds a mirror before the face of society and reveals an unflattering image. When that company is intimately housed in The Abreact Performance Space, the revelation is literally “in your face.” Thus, Puzzle Piece Theatre’s “White People,” a sobering meditation on fear and loathing of “Them,” the “Others” and the “They’re Not Like Us” gets very up close and personal.
The first production of J.T. Rodgers’ play was in 2000, and was a reminder that the new millennium was not an Age of Aquarius in terms of race and class relations. Somewhere along the line it was nominated for both the John Barrymore Award and L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. “White People” is a one-act, structured as an interlacing series of monologues delivered by three actors. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all the characters are “white.”
Alan (Matt Siadak) is an optimistic young college professor, living in Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town, who “squints” to avoid destroying the illusion that he’s living in an urban Eden. His political correctness is torn between admiration for his prized pupil Felicia – a brilliant mind, though ghetto-raised – and the young black punks who literally beat the truth into him concerning the streets where he lives.
Mara Lynn (Laura Heikkinen, Puzzle Piece’s associate artistic director) lives in Fayetteville, NC with a failed jock for a husband and a son in failing health. Feeling locked out of the American Dream, Mara Lynn channels her resentment towards the India-born specialist treating her boy.
Martin (Lindel Salow) is a New York transplant to a St. Louis law firm. An old school perfectionist, Martin is intolerant of the hip-hop culture thriving in his firm’s mail room. He seems blind-sided by the fact his casual contempt might be license for his 15-year-old son to turn skinhead.
“White People” is under the direction of Puzzle Piece’s producing artistic director, D.B. Schroeder. The performances are thoughtfully developed and compelling. The playing area of The Abreact seems smaller than ever, given the simplicity of the set and the effect of pools of light illuminating the vignettes.
Regardless if its award nominations, “White People” is only a partial success so far as its writing is concerned. It is difficult to sustain dramatic interest through a series of monologues, particularly when only one character – Alan, as it happens – shows any sign of growth. Although the soliloquies are linked thematically, they form a very loose fabric. We cannot fault Rodgers for not providing resolutions, although, in drama, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The characters’ prejudices and intolerance are endemic.
Recent research in family history reminds me that, while the “No Irish Need Apply” signs were coming down by 1909, my great-great-Aunt Sara, in the U. S. for less than a decade, already felt superior to her newly arrived sister-in-law and her brood. The names Bridget and Patrick were “too Irish” for my grandmother and her brother; they became Catherine and Joseph.
Jump forward a century and consider the presidential election of 2008. The new administration had the potential to lead the nation into an era of healing and understanding. Instead, it has become a lightning rod for suspicion and divisiveness.
“White People” becomes a launching point for fostering discussion, a function that Puzzle Piece Theatre takes seriously. Performances are followed by a talk-back session involving the company and interested audience members.
Novelist Larry Niven pessimistically attributed prejudice and intolerance to “hard-wired” behavior of our pre-human ancestors. For preservation of the pack,” different” meant “dangerous.” Emotion takes a logical progression: “See the stranger, fear the stranger, hate the stranger, kill the stranger.” So far along in our evolution, isn’t it time to rise above primitive instincts?
Puzzle Piece Theatre
at The Abreact Performance Space
1301 W. Lafayette #113, Detroit
1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30
8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7
8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, 8
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 2, 9