Leo (Daveed Diggs) makes an outrageous request of his best friend Ralph (Thomas Sadoski) in Suzan-Lori Parks’ bizarre, disturbing and in some ways brilliant new play, White Noise, at the Public Theater. Leo wants to become Ralph’s slave.
His tight circle of friends at first thinks Leo is joking. He’s not. Then the three of them assume he’s become irrational, due to his recent trauma.
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A stalled visual artist and a lifelong insomniac, Leo was taking a long walk late at night in a white neighborhood when the police confronted him, and pushed him face first onto the sidewalk. They suspect that the incident has made him unhinged.
“Maybe you need a vacation,” says his girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winters)
But Leo insists. He has a lawyer draw up a contract so that Ralph can buy Leo and enslave him for 40 days. Leo tries to explain: “The pain and rage need to get worked out of my system. I’ll take myself to the lowest place and know for ever after, that if I can bear it, then I can bear anything.”
His friends are skeptical, but go along with him. Most audience members will surely require a suspension of disbelief longer than the George Washington Bridge to buy into this premise. The play is also three hours long, features some very long monologues, and veers at times from uncomfortable to offensive to ludicrous. To top it off, the climax — and much of the rest of the play — occurs in a bowling alley. Yet none of that really matters. If Parks’ conceit is fanciful, the play is predominantly neither farcical nor fierce. It’s illuminating. White Noise dips deep into the racial divide in America.
The playwright weaves in her sharp social and cultural observations in various ways. The four characters, who have known each other since college, are two interracial couples. All four have an involved sexual or emotional history with one another, and their interactions over the course of the play, including some casual betrayals, can be interpreted as subtly reflecting the larger state of race and gender relations.
There are also rich layers of clever, thought-provoking metaphor, one of which helps explain the play’s title. In Leo’s long opening monologue, he explains that Ralph gave him a “white noise machine” to help with Leo’s insomnia. And it worked. “The only problem was, I would go to paint in my studio and there was that sound still in my head. SSSSSSSSS. And all I did was listen to that sound.” It prevented him from making any art. So he threw it away. His insomnia returned – but he still couldn’t make any art. There’s an allegory in there somewhere.
But the playwright is also more direct. Misha (Sheria Irving), Ralph’s girlfriend, is the host of a live-streamed online show entitled “Ask A Black,” that both satirizes the attitudes of White America (“how come,” one caller asks, “people get offended when I ask them if I can touch their hair?”) and works in some pithy and slyly relevant quotes: “’I freed a thousand slaves and I could have freed a thousand more if only they had known that they were slaves.’- Harriet Tubman.”
In Misha’s extended monologue – each of the characters gets one – she confesses that “I dial up the ebonics…perform my blackness” on the show, so that listeners will trust her “authenticity” and call in. She riffs on racism as a virus – “we’ve all got it” – and explains the difference between White Guilt and Black Guilt. “White Guilt: good people feeling bad for things that are not directly their fault…Black Guilt. Like when one appears to look guilty even when you’re just walking around minding your own business. And so when we pass the cops on the street we smile a lot, or we look down at the sidewalk.”
And then there is Leo’s experiment. On Day 14 of his enslavement, after we’ve seen him shine Ralph’s shoes, heat his tea, cook his breakfast, teach him how to dance, Leo says “our experiment. It’s working,” Now, cab drivers stop for him; store managers don’t follow him around; rich-looking lady doesn’t clutch her purse. In this way, the playwright is offering us a laundry list of the average African-American’s everyday indignities. Leo wonders aloud to Ralph whether this newfound respect is because “somehow they know that I’m yours.” In any case, “I feel safe, protected and respected.” And….he’s even starting to sleep.
That the experiment and the experience eventually sour feels inevitable – a lesson learned from psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment — although the way it plays out is neither tidy nor entirely predictable.
White Noise would not work as well as it does without the performances of the four cast members, under the director of Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. Daveed Diggs has a challenging role, given his character’s decision to become a slave, which he calls his Quest. Thomas Sadoski, too, must work to make his character both credible and relatable. Even before he becomes Leo’s master, Ralph is more old-school white than he would ever admit, even to himself. He is full of resentment because a person of color got a job he wanted at the university where he teaches as an adjunct. In one unsettling scene, Ralph, loaded down with shopping bags, hands Leo some gifts, one by one: A t-shirt that says “Slave,” a barbarous old iron slave collar that he’s borrowed from a museum, and a “genetically modified bonsai cotton plant.”
It helps that Leo doesn’t bring up his Quest until an hour into the play. That first hour allows us to get to know all four of the characters in a sympathetic light. Diggs’ off-hand, natural, and appealing delivery wins us over to Leo, especially in the opening monologue, which begins with casual good humor. It’s an aria, in a way, and it makes us think of the rap arias in Hamilton that Diggs did so well, so that we were drawn to Thomas Jefferson even though he was depicted as one of the villains.
I recently saw Hamilton again on Broadway, which may explain why I detect some shrewd allusions to that musical in White Noise. Right before Leo reveals his Quest, he tells his friends: “Wait for It.” Much later, Ralph tells Dawn that, since he was passed over for the job at the university, the Dean has been meeting with him, supportively (and, as we find out, conspiratorially.) Dawn replies: “It’s good to have him on your side.”
White Noise may not be the crowd-pleaser that Hamilton has proven to be, but it creates a similar kind of double consciousness. In place of a single, black-and-white America, it asks us to see America as, simultaneously but separately, white and black.
White Noise is on stage at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, in the East Village, New York, N.Y. 10003) through May 5, 2019. Tickets and details
White Noise written by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Oskar Eustis. Featuring Daveed Diggs as Leo, Sheria Irving as Misha, Thomas Sadoski as Ralph, Zoe Winters as Dawn. Scenic design by Clint Ramos, costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting design by Xavier Pierce, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, projection design by Lucy Mackinnon. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.