April 21, 2019
Suzan-Lori Parks’ newest production White Noise at the Public Theater rips open the quiet side of racism and it’s insidious drone inside everyone.
Comfortably seated in a chair, Leo (the captivating Daveed Diggs best known for his star turn in Hamilton) addresses the audience in a warm baritone voice coated in a light southern accent. Diggs relays his upbringing in a well-educated family and good neighborhood noting his only real problem growing up was insomnia.
Diggs’ solo, which by the way was so well delivered he could have narrated the whole play, segues into the discovery of a “fix” for the insomnia: a “white noise” recording. But there’s a downside—the remedy saps his creativity so he can no longer produce his art.
This scene folds into a dialogue with an enlightened, racially mixed quartet composed of an Asian woman, an African- American woman raised by lesbians, plus a Caucasian and African-American male. These school chums, share similar educations and backgrounds except for John who uneasily sits on a family fortune made by owning bowling alleys. Gabbing daily, they offer advice on career moves, gossip and bowl. Yes, Ralph and Leo are bowling champions who love popping beers over an actual bowling alley planted on stage.
At first, all appear to be leading relatively satisfying lives. Ralph’s partner, Misha (Sheria Irving), a vlogger, finds a new avenue of expression on a call-in forum she calls “Ask A Black” (adroitly visualized by Lucy Mackinnon’s projections) and Dawn, a lawyer, represents good causes.
Suddenly, the play dives below the line of social acceptability when Leo is roughed-up by the police while walking around the neighborhood. Outraged, everyone’s equilibrium is disturbed. Dawn wants Leo to press charges but Leo deflects the offer and contrives another, more cringe-worthy idea. He proposes his best bud, Ralph, buy him for 40 days and 40 nights for just a little under $100,000. The human sale would clear Leo of his debts and free him to ponder questions about his life and the sinister reality of racism.
Uneasy at first, Ralph agrees to the financial end but denies interest in holding Leo accountable. Without revealing the play’s frightful dénouement, know that everyone begins a descent into the chatter of his or her own personal underworld.
Muscularly directed by Oskar Eustis, the simple, effective set by Clint Ramos is enhanced by Xavier Pierce’s lighting design and effortlessly evolves from one domestic site to another. Be ready for a bumpy ride into gender, race and politics.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis