I thought I had WHITE figured out. Much of James Ijames’ new play, receiving its world premiere at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, unspools as a sharp examination of white privilege, especially as it pertains to creation, representation, and exhibition in the art world. But thanks to skillful writing and one of the most perfectly executed red herrings I’ve ever seen, WHITE morphs into possibly the strongest theatrical statement on the commodification of black bodies since Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus.
WHITE centers around Gus (Jamison Foreman), a gay male artist who is perturbed when his work is excluded from an exhibit curated by his best friend Jane (Jessica Bradford) at a prestigious museum. Jane’s interest lies in diversifying the gallery’s “decidedly homogeneous” collection, and although she respects Gus’s work, he is just another “white dude.” In order to prove the arbitrariness of this world view, Gus hires Vanessa (Jaylene Owens Clark), a black actor, to pose as the actual creator of his paintings, believing (correctly) that Jane will include them if she thinks they were made by a person of color.
Ijames has said he took his inspiration for WHITE primarily from the controversy surrounding the artist Joe Scanlan, who created a black female persona named Donelle Woolford and hired two black actors (including local artist Jennifer Kidwell) to portray her. Scanlan’s Woolford was selected for inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, angering many who felt his work was a slap in the face to artists of color who are routinely excluded from such major retrospectives. Watching the play, I was also reminded of Michael Derrick Hudson, an Indiana-based white poet who submitted several works under the name Yi-Fen Chou—an actual living person he’d known from high school—because he felt they stood a better chance at publication if they were perceived as written by as Asian woman rather than a white man.
WHITE is also eerily similar in many ways to Jeff Talbott’s 2011 play The Submission, which Quince Productions produced in Philadelphia in 2015. In Talbott’s play, a gay male playwright submits his latest work—a gritty drama about black family life—to the Humana Festival under the name Shaleeha G’ntamobi. When the play is accepted, he hires a black actor to portray Shaleeha—sound familiar? But whereas The Submission did little more than scratch the surface of representation in art, WHITE makes the matter its central thesis, and offers a strong indictment of the casual comfort with which white culture appropriates black experience—and black people—for its own benefit.
In Malika Oyetimein’s briskly paced production, the terrific cast—which also includes Justin Jain as Gus’s boyfriend, who is forced to face uncomfortable revelations about his partner as the scheme progresses—excel at foregrounding the subtleties in Ijames’ text. Foreman’s Gus ideally captures a particular strain of racism that is all too common in the gay community—the belief that a gay man, particularly one with a nonwhite partner, is incapable of implicit or explicit racism. Yet Gus tosses off racially charged sound bites that would make a Fox News anchor blush (“To be a white man in America right now is to be rendered silent!”) with seemingly perfect ease. Bradford’s Jane is the kind of well-meaning liberal who nonetheless cannot avoid unleashing a litany of microaggressions; a scene in which she comically defers pronunciation of a black woman’s name is as amusing as it is deeply uncomfortable.
But the evening belongs to Owens, a rising talent in Philadelphia theater who won a Barrymore for her breakout performance in An Octoroon last year. Her Vanessa refuses to merely act as a black Eliza Doolittle to Gus’s Henry Higgins; if she is going to participate in this charade, she will exert her agency. The result is stunning: so much of the play works because it feels as if Vanessa is in control, although the truth of the matter remains ambiguous.
It is that duality that facilitates the stunning denouement, which I won’t reveal here. But needless to say, WHITE is a play that will—and should—stay with you long after you leave the theater. In many ways, it offers more questions than answers—which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as theater audiences too often remain as frustratingly homogeneous as the art collection at Jane’s gallery.
[Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown, PA] April 27-May 28, 2017; theatrehorizon.org.