White on White | 95min | JACK
It is a truism that race is a social construct, but its being a construct doesn’t make it any less real. On the contrary, it’s often something you ignore at your peril, like a blinking turn signal, especially if you are non-white. This idea is something that the members of an all-white, anti-racist affinity group in playwright Robert Quillen Camp’s White on White grok on an intellectual level—they make all the appropriate overtures about being “aggrieved” and “complicit” in the wake of Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal—but subconsciously, they’re at sea, straggling to meet the shoreline of their deepest selves.
The meeting starts off innocently enough; the dolorous background noise of NPR strangely lulls us into thinking we’ve walked into a co-op board meeting, with its requisite popcorn and chips on a table that has been commandeered for the reading of minutes. In walk some laggard audience members—no, actually, they’re actors who are all wearing masks and who host Hannah (Nisi Sturgis) greets with peppy small talk. Seb (Heather E. Cunningham) breaks the ice with news of flooding and “actual sewage” in her basement, and the mombies in the group commiserate about their children learning online. So far, so real. White on White, at the risk of sounding like one of the group’s eggheads, turns on the rhetoric of sincerity, skewering white people’s pledges “to step up and do something,” to get “on board with the struggle,” while promising not to stray too far from the truth. Or does it? Certainly the cast (directed by Alec Duffy and Lori Elizabeth Parquet) flawlessly mimics the hydraulics of small group meetings so that when two of the characters park a large chest off to the side of the room, we hardly give it a second thought. And there’s the de rigueur housekeeping that almost numbs us into complacency: a quick poll is taken about masking/not-masking and given that everyone is vaccinated, the latter carries the day.
It’s when the characters close the circuit with the rest of the audience, seated in concentric circles, that our assumptions about staid protocols begin to glitch. Seb leads the group on a sequence of songs about understanding, ships, and “wires and trees” while Riley (Dinah Berkeley), whose pronouns are they/them, accompanies these tunes on an autoharp. While it’s not quite accurate to say that these performances send us through an emotional trapdoor (Camp is too subtle a writer for that), they ineluctably recalibrate our expectations for the taut and thrillingly paced psychodrama that unfolds. Your spookiness mileage may vary. Those familiar with Camp’s uncanny work—especially his “All Hands,” about the outré rituals of secret societies that put the “cult” in “occult”—will probably be less surprised (spoiler alert!) at the ball of flesh that glistens forth from one of the characters. This is not just body horror for its own sake, though, and not the most disturbing thing to manifest in this sleek 95-minute production: once Hannah “extrudes” the pound of flesh, Michelle (Rebecca Mozo), the de facto whiteness doula, informs her that it’s an amalgamation of white privilege and unadulterated power. It turns out that each of the characters has expelled similar balls in the past, which they gradually reveal to each other like a sordid secret. Masticating the gelatinous rice balls (just go along with it) makes Hannah and Michelle feel “like a cis straight white man,” “with a gun,” “with an army,” “with a knife between my teeth.” It also seems to have aphrodisiac effects on the eater and draws power vampirically from people in proximity. One bite imbues Hannah with a surge of libidinal energy while sending Henry, the pleonastic professor played by a terrific John Lenartz, into a naked paroxysm. If all this feels a bit excessive, that may well be by design. We’re firmly in the land of the unheimlich here, “the stuff that’s way down in there, baked in,” as O’Reilly, a mechanic played by Peter Mills Weiss, puts it. Camp, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Freudian uncanny in the plays of Maeterlinck and Strindberg, seems to have drawn particular inspiration from the Freudian notion of drives as fundamentally operating on the level of excess or surplus that goes beyond individual volition and that conduces to breakdowns in our distinctions of self and other, subject and object, individual and group.
Things come to an (even headier) head when Hannah’s husband Peter (Brandt Adams) interrupts the exorcism, née anti-racism congress. He could be a character from a lost Shirley Jackson novel; from the first time he shows up, in beige pants matching the carpet, an aura of the doomed wallflower attends him. As he chitchats with Henry and O’Reilly, the sound of a muffled heartbeat menaces the conversation (Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste did the sound design.) The feeling of dread only intensifies later, when, having returned from a fruitless search for his lost daughter, he confronts Henry and the others for desecrating his house with overturned snacks, discarded clothes, and bloodstains: the writing is everywhere but on the wall. What starts as a diffidence of disagreement—O’Reilly calls all white people racists, while Peter demures—turns into a bizarre referendum on the hoarding of privilege by parents who decide to not send their kid to a “diverse” school. White fragility, indeed. To misquote Tennessee Williams: they are all “children in a vast kindergarten, trying to spell racism’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks.” Except that the stakes here are much higher.
There’s a sense of Borgesian “irreality” to the whole thing. I was reminded particularly of the Argentinian writer’s great short story “Secret of the Phoenix,” which hinges on the open secret of human sexuality, rendered a concept non grata. The “secret” motoring that work is the tension between what everyone knows and what no one likes to talk about publicly. The secret animating White on White is even more shameful and repugnant, revolving as it does around the collusions of white power and everything it hemispheres away. The specular quality of Hannah’s name—a perfect circle, one might say—raises the question of who could see themselves in her, or in Riley/O’Reilly, or any of the other characters. As an Asian person, I felt strongly at times like an interloper, at other times as if I were watching illicitly-obtained footage of a bribe being made. For a certain type of audience member, I can imagine it feeling—and I mean this in the best way—like a much-needed shot in the arm that sickens you enough to certain experiences for your moral health. Yet even that logline—White on White: a vaccine against cultural suicide—doesn’t do the play justice. Like Moby-Dick, that rollicking, “wicked book” about a monomaniacal sea captain’s pursuit of a great white whale that Henry can quote from at length, White on White incorporates so much in its great stomach of a play: school desegregation, gun violence, decolonizing departments, the will to dominate, the discursive production of knowledge, the problem of whiteness as ideology—and we’ve only scratched the inflamed epidermis. What the poet Charles Olson said of Melville’s canonical novel is thuddingly true here, too: “it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.”