Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 25, 2009

White People

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2009
by Karolina Sadowicz

Interracial stereotypes and misunderstandings are explored from the point of view of three very different people in J.T. Rogers' award-winning play. Through carefully crafted, bold monologues, three white people explore their own attitudes and assumptions about other races with varying degrees of introspection.

The play is set simultaneously in three locations, represented by three platforms. Each is painted stark white, and containing minimal set pieces and props, be it a section of a park bench or a halved desk, also completely white and entirely blank.

The unique staging is a challenge for both the actors and audience: the entire cast is present from the moment the theatre is open for seating, and they wait along with the audience to begin the show. The unexpected presence of the characters and a subdued soundtrack of eerie music draws an alertness from the audience and steadily builds tension. Feeling under observation takes the audience members from being passive spectators to a sense of being scrutinized as much as the characters.

Jason Asprey plays a well meaning, educated college professor living in New York City, who finds his progressive academic thinking and political correctness challenged when his family is attacked. Michael Hammond is a bold, unapologetic lawyer, transplanted from the big city to St. Louis with the intent of building a safer life for his children and failing. Dana Harrison is a former beauty queen clinging to old values and past glory in North Carolina. Each character is fully realized, complex, flawed, and real.

Rogers' script never asks for sympathy nor absolution for its characters. Sometimes the audience laughs with them, sometimes it winces. The actors give powerful, uninhibited performances that provoke self-reflection. The uninterrupted 90 minute performance gives no opportunity to look away. Each individual storyline reaches an explosive peak when the characters react to violence, horror, or humiliation, and each character leaves us searching for hope, redemption, or understanding.

"White People" captures the complexity of living in a diverse world comprised of people with different experiences, and the ways in which struggling to understand is sometimes the best we can do.