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Shades of Gray

Etcetera's surprisingly enjoyable 'White People' brings nuance to racial conflict

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An unexpected contradiction lies at the heart of White People, the current offering from Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.

Contradiction isn't surprising in a play about white people confronting race. As they trip over what they feel (or shouldn't feel), or even what's acceptable to talk about, these characters sometimes struggle just to get a sentence out.

The real surprise is that the play is enjoyable and engaging to watch, despite its thorny subject matter, the characters' sometimes despicable attitudes and its accounts of two truly horrifying acts of violence.

Like any "issue" play, White People has archetypal characters—in this case, a professor, an ex-cheerleader and an attorney—who give voice to the unspoken dark corners of conflict. Often, they implicate audience members. But the three white people in White People don't come to condemn; they're simply human beings.

Credit goes to playwright J.T. Rogers, director Toni Press-Coffman and her masterful acting ensemble. White People premiered in Philadelphia in 2000, but—other than having no reference to our first African-American president—it could have been written this week.

Rogers often uses the lens of individual experience to explore conflicts it would otherwise be difficult to wrap our minds around (such as the Rwandan genocide, or the Afghan-Soviet war). In this case, the playwright brings a personal perspective to the issue of race by interweaving three monologues.

The three speakers occupy the simple set at the same time. The college professor (Cliff Madison) sits on a bench near his apartment in New York City; the ex-cheerleader (Amanda Gremel) is on her front porch in North Carolina; and the lawyer (Glen Coffman) presides at his desk in his St. Louis office. Each has thematic connections to the other two, and each will disclose dark secrets before the evening is through.

With a boyish face and jovial personality, Madison brings charm and appeal to Alan, the professor who could easily be unpleasantly self-analytical. Instead, Alan seems more like a well-meaning child as he stumbles through the English language, trying not to say anything offensive.

In some ways, Alan is the most conflicted of the characters. He puzzles over the paradox that his comfortable life in Manhattan can be traced back to the legacy of Peter Stuyvesant, a Dutch colonial governor who was guilty of religious and racial violence. Alan's brightest student, his personal favorite, is black, and he shamefully acknowledges that, when he sees her, epithets like "drug dealer" and "ho" pop into his head.

Alan also offers the most hope for change in the play: He recognizes his hidden racism and its potential for harm, and takes steps to try to overcome it.

Mara Lynn, the North Carolina woman, is much less torn by her racial anger. A former head cheerleader who married the high school wrestling champ, her glory days have faded into a life nothing like the one she expected. Everywhere she turns, she feels humiliated and looked down upon by immigrants in positions of power, whether it's her husband's boss, a bank manager or her son's medical specialist.

Gremel brings out Mara Lynn's many contradictions. Her longing for past glory is palpable, but its only remaining vestige is her pride. She rages in private against the people upon whom her survival depends. And that very anger comes across as her last, helpless defense against a disappointing life.

In contrast, Martin is a successful attorney who knows how to play by the rules and win. Portrayed by Coffman, Martin is sophisticated, articulate and intelligent, but he always nurses a sense of indignation over the behavior of "lesser" people.

It would be easy to play Martin as a hypocrite, or to telegraph his unconscious racism to the audience, but Coffman wisely plays it straight. He's not racist, he says; he simply expects people to maintain certain standards. His arguments are reasonable and reassuring.

But even Martin's wife accuses him of participating in "white flight"— the family has joined the exodus of moneyed whites leaving urban areas as the minority population grows. Martin is unperturbed. Why earn money, he asks, if not to secure the best schools for your children and a comfortable home in a neighborhood full of people who look and behave like you?

However, his son has now been arrested for an unthinkable act of racial violence, and Martin is unable or unwilling to see that his attitudes may have planted the seeds of that act.

Of course, these three characters in no way make up a statistical cross-section of white America. For a play about our shallow perceptions of "the other," Rogers is a little too willing to paint Mara Lynn in Southern-fried stereotypes. And surely the white experience comes in more shades than "poor" and "intellectual."

But if Rogers is stacking the deck, he's doing it, in part, to link his characters. Mara Lynn has a son with a debilitating physical condition, and Alan's wife is expecting a child who may be disabled. Alan has been the victim of racial violence, while Martin's son has been the perpetrator of a similar act. And Martin is in a position of power, looking down on anyone who doesn't fit in, including Mara Lynn. Even phrases and physical gestures are echoed among the characters. That's good writing, and it's wrapped around fine performances.

It's no contradiction to say that White People is challenging and horrifying, and has no easy answers—and that it leaves you glad that you came.

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