There are white people all over the place. The ones whose dilemmas we observe in J.T. Rogers’ remarkable play are Martin (Kurt Zischke), a Brooklyn lawyer brought in to run a St. Louis law firm, Alan (Lee Sellers), a New York professor with a burgeoning interest in Peter Stuyvesant, one of New York city’s founders, and Mara Lynn (Margot White), a young working-class mother whose world has suddenly become dependent on an East Indian physician. They are emblematic of white culture, and thus its witting or unwitting defenders, with results which range from hopeful to tragic.
They tell their stories separately, and serially. Martin, a human steamroller who has come west to straighten out a failing enterprise, is the most straightforwardly aggressive. He is the lawyer who lays down the law, demanding a standardized brand of perfection not only in the firm’s product but in its presentation. Short hair, suits and ties, and an absence of body jewelry are required but not sufficient; Martin also mandates that all suits be made of cotton or wool, and button-down collars are prohibited. This, Martin explains, is to reassure the firm’s clientele that they are reliable people, not prone to radical or alarming decisions, and that the firm reflects the client’s own culture. Martin cannot understand why his African-American subordinates have a problem with this.
Mara Lynn is in the precise opposite position: she is subordinate to everyone, including her drunk huband, Earl. Earl was a great high school wrestler until he blew out his knee, and has gone downhill ever since. Things in general have gone downhill for Mara Lynn, who was once a homecoming queen. When she was in high school, she was beautiful and moreover the consort of a man with rippling abs and an unlimited future. Now she has the contours of a mother on track for middle age, and her husband has a beer belly. She sees herself surrounded, and outdone, by Indians, Mexicans, East Asians and African Americans, and says – more wistfully than angrily – “it’s our turn now.” Sadly, she does not acknowledge, or even see, that like white people generally, her time of dominion is coming to an end.
Alan is unquestionably the most self-aware of the three protagonists, but he is nonetheless lost and fearful in a world that is new, but not brave. His very language has been hijacked. Who decided, he wonders, that “stupid” means “good”, and why didn’t he get the memo? He has grown to hate his customers – the four hundred students in his classroom, who listen to him in boredom and with indifference. He struggles with his feelings toward Felicia, whose cornrows and snapping gum disguise a mind which Alan recognizes works better than his own. He should feel joy at finding a brilliant student – it is the best thing about being an educator, after all – and he does, but he also feels anger with and fear of the way she is different from him, and those that he knows well. He contemplates the life of Stuyvesant, who carved out the City through the blood and flesh of the native population. We should feel revulsion, he recognizes, but we have put up a statue to him. He is, after all, the man who made it possible for us to drink Starbucks while looking at skyscrapers in the lovely park from which he addresses each of us.
Playwright Rogers, who demonstrated a knack for dealing with moral complexity with his CATF debut The Overwhelming in 2008, here does not permit us the luxury of treating any of these white people as cartoon villains. Martin is a man with a very hard edge, but he is also a truth-teller who is refreshingly free of political cant and whose searing analyses does not spare his own failings. Zischke, and director Ed Herendeen, perceptively give Martin the over-precise diction of a man who has worked himself up from poverty while throwing off the distinctive accent of his home town. He does not understand where the point at which his cultural defensiveness becomes bigotry is until he sees it reflected in somebody else.
Mara Lynn typifies the lazy thinking of the bigot, but this unattractive characteristic is overwhelmed by her admirable feistiness in the face of the overwhelming catastrophe she faces. White, who was so good in Studio Theatre’s Reasons to be Pretty, imbues Mara Lynn with courage and grace; the tears, when they come, are so hard earned that they win responsive tears from the audience. Alan, notwithstanding his impulses of fear and anger, is an honorable man, sweet-natured and generous of spirit. Sellers makes him seem as though he is giving confession to a good friend.
These stories and characters never intersect, and thus in some sense White People is more storytelling than theater. But the stories are told so lucidly and well – both by Rogers and by the actors in Herendeen’s production – that they universalize, and become the stories of millions of white Americans who, like Stuyvesant, are about to step into a new world. Let’s hope we handle better than he did.
By J.T. Rogers
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Reviewed by Tim Treanor