Slave Mentality: The Wrong Notes in ‘White Noise’

Suzan-Lori Parks has written a series of provocative plays, most of them revolving around issues of race and usually in non-realistic styles, ranging from Brechtian fable (Fucking A), to historical allegory (Venus; Father Comes Home from the Wars) to baffling surrealism (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World), In her latest work, White Noise,  just opened at the Public Theater,  she opts, at least in much of the play, for a relatively unfamiliar mode: contemporary kitchen-sink realism.

We are introduced to two upper-middle-class, interracial couples. Leo (Daveed Diggs) is an artist with insomnia—the title refers to the machine he is using to try to cure it — who has recently been roughed up in an encounter with the police. His wife (Zoe Winters), a lawyer who often represents black defendants, urges him to sue over the incident. His best friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), is a teacher who is seething over losing out on a promotion to a minority candidate. His wife (Sheria Irving) contributes to the racial roundelay in satirical fashion on a video blog she does called “Ask a Black.” 

The play pivots on Leo’s decision, apparently motivated by the police incident, to embark on an experiment.  He wants Ralph to “buy” him, and treat him as a slave for 40 days. The rest of the play chronicles the results of the experiment — which, not surprisingly, does not turn out well.

White Noise is the latest in a rash of plays (American Son and Slave Play among the most recent) whose theme is the inescapable hold that race has on the American psyche. Slavery is a stain that can never be erased. Racism is ingrained, even in characters who think they are above it. It’s a pessimistic, deterministic vision, and I think it can be overplayed. But I’m a white theater critic, and I do not pretend to judge. I can say, though, that the argument as Parks presents it in White Noise feels manipulative, unconvincing, and false.

Leo’s “quest,” as he calls it, is obviously meant as a metaphor. You night buy it in an absurdist black comedy, or a Jordan Peele horror film, or even one of Parks’s earlier plays.  But in the realistic confines that she sets up here — directed with naturalistic earnestness by Oskar Eustis — it simply doesn’t fly. Why would Ralph, supposedly Leo’s best friend, go along with such a scheme? What explains the sadistic pleasure he gets in putting Leo in horse-collar shackles, or parading him in front of a secret society of white racists, whom he has somehow hooked up with? Why are the two women completely incommunicado with their partners through the entire bizarre experiment? (Why, for that matter, are these couples together in the first place? Each has earlier been involved with the other’s mate, and neither couple seems to have much real connection.)

White Noise is, in the end, a play in which the action and characters seem predetermined by the playwright’s agenda.  Because Parks is a good writer, much of the three-hour evening is theatrically fluent and structural clever. The first act sets up the problem; the second act plays out the 40-day “experiment,” with the actors ticking off the days on a chalkboard. Each character interrupts the action at one point with a confessional narrative. The play builds to a high-voltage climax that (while fairly ludicrous, on any realistic level) leaves the audience sated, shaken, feeling as if they’ve seen something important. The subject may be, but the play, alas, is just noise.    

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