theater review

Theater Review: Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise Is Sneakily, Subtly Radical

From White Noise, at the Public. Photo: Joan Marcus

The brilliance of Suzan-Lori Parks’s eviscerating new play White Noise is that underneath the finely crafted, often sharply funny apparent realism of its surface, its roots stretch deep away into archetype. Each one of its quartet of characters — all, at a glance, hip, progressive 30-somethings living in a big, busy contemporary city — is at once an individual, nuanced and developed, and, to steal a phrase from Tony Kushner, “a whole kind of a person.” They expand into symbol without losing their specific humanity, giving the play as a whole the civic heft and breadth of allegory. As White Noise hurtles toward its conclusion, pressure and terror expertly mounting, the stage world seems to constrict and expand simultaneously. We come down to two men, alone in a bowling alley, and we come down to the country, to 327 million people bound by a brutal history of liberty and justice for some, now at a moment of reckoning with a long covered-over, bone-deep wound.

We begin with brutality too, a kind so common that its loathsome dullness has become routine. A black painter named Leo (Daveed Diggs, who crackles with such incredible energy in the role that he seems as if he might spark to the touch) has been roughed up by racist police. He’s been a chronic insomniac since age 5 (“The shortage of sleep has made me, you could say, edgier, than most people,” he tells us wryly, “And angry. And so, I’m the fractured and angry and edgy black visual artist”) and when he can’t sleep, he walks. Now, on one of these walks, he’s been stopped by armed cops, his face slammed into the sidewalk. At first he seems stoic, even a bit ironic about the whole thing: “You should call your mom … She misses you,” his girlfriend Dawn (Zoë Winters) suggests. “She has Jesus,” Leo quips. But there’s tension in Diggs’s shoulders and something flickering rapidly behind his eyes. “I thought, I’m going to be one of those guys that they shoot,” he confesses to Dawn, whose vehement contribution is that Leo should “sue the shit out of them.” Dawn’s a white defense lawyer, “one of the good guys,” she chirps repeatedly — smart and ambitious, with a tendency to overcompensate and a more sensitive ego than she lets on. She and Leo are half of a foursome. Their best friends are another couple that they’ve known since college: thoughtful, self-possessed Misha (Sheria Irving) — the valedictorian of their graduating class, who performs an amped-up version of her race on her livestreaming online call-in show “Ask a Black” — and Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), an everyman white dude who rocked the college bowling team with Leo, “scraped by” to graduate, and ended up inheriting a fortune from his estranged multimillionaire father.

The hints that Parks is doing something beyond contemporary realism are subtle at first, but they’re there. It matters that, for all its New Yorkiness, the city the friends live in is never named. It matters that their traditional hangout — a bowling alley that Ralph has the keys to because, wouldn’t you know it, his father’s millions came from “a robust chain of bowling alleys coast to coast” — is known generally as “The Spot.” And it matters that, as Leo tells us early on, the couples used to be swapped. Leo and Misha were dating, as were Dawn and Ralph. “And then we all broke up and … got reconfigured in different ways.” It won’t take long for us to discover that the reconfiguration also includes three years of Dawn and Misha hooking up on the down-low, along with a continuation of Ralph’s incurable cheating habit. It’s not that all these pairings and repairings are strictly unbelievable: It’s that Parks is building a whole world out of four friends. The reshuffling into mixed-race couples marks that recent period in our history — the period in which my generation grew up — where we were erroneously taught, perhaps naively and perhaps with willful blindness, that we’d reached a “post-racial” America, that we needn’t, even shouldn’t, “see color” anymore.

The inevitable violent crumbling of relationships that occurs in White Noise enacts, on a scale at once intimate and grand, the rough awakening from that bullshitty national delusion. “I can’t sleep,” says Leo as the play begins: He is awake, literally woke, with no remedy for it. He’s spent his life trying to go back to sleep, and the play takes its title from his most recent attempt. “For my birthday, Ralph, my right-hand bro, he got me this white-noise machine,” says Leo, “It was like fucking magic.” For a year, the machine’s innocuous hissing helped him sleep — but it also clouded his brain. He couldn’t paint, couldn’t make anything. When we meet him, he’s still in a rut. He’s gotten rid of the machine but not of the noise in his head, and in the wake of his attack, he’s had “a totally far-out idea that could solve everything.”

“Ralph?” says Leo near the end of the play’s first act, as the four friends share beers and tequila at the bowling alley, “I want you to buy me …. Make me your property.” Here’s the bomb, planted and ticking and ready to go off — just like the Chekhovian gun Ralph keeps in a box in his apartment — and all at once White Noise slams history into the present, like stomping down on a layer cake that’s got poison under the meticulous chocolate-and-vanilla–swirl icing. Leo’s done the reasoning, though it appalls his friends, and he’s drawn up the contract: For 40 days he’ll be Ralph’s “Enslaved Person,” in exchange for the “protection” that a “Big Somebody” like Ralph can offer from “the man.” Even, or perhaps especially, if all that protection entails is a psychological proximity to the unearned self-assurance of whiteness. “I am aware that I have internalized the hate,” Leo explains. “Not on every level but on some. I am aware that Internalizing The Hatred is a survival skill … And like Freud or Jung said, ‘The only way out is through.’ So, I’m going to go through it. And I’ll purge myself … And then … I will be truly free.”

Parks’s second act plays out as the 40 days mount up, the actors drawing big chalk hash-marks on the back wall of Clint Ramos’s spare set. White Noise is a full three hours long, but its craft is tight and its stakes ever-intensifying: We don’t know exactly what will come of Leo’s scheme, but we can feel something huge and disastrous rolling toward us like the boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, its speed increasing by the minute. Oskar Eustis (under whose leadership at the Public, Parks has been the theater’s master writer chair for a decade) keeps the focus on the show’s immensely powerful ensemble, allowing the actors to release into the play’s intimacies and dangers with a visceral sense of trust. Parks gives all the characters “solos” in which they open up to us, and Winters and Irving are especially affecting as their facades break down. Irving’s Misha — trying to own her huge intelligence and navigate her fiercely loving, academically high-pressure upbringing by her two “very black” moms — wrenches at our insides with her struggle to explain to us, to herself, why she keeps on “black-splaining the world” despite her exhaustion. And Winters breaks herself into sad, frightening pieces as she admits to successfully defending a young black man she knew was guilty because of her own white-savior complex. Her type of a person is the “do-gooder,” a role she inherited from her parents. “And if the contract [I have with my parents] were written down,” she tells us, her eyes hard and dead, “it would say something like ‘We have agreed to be do-gooders so that we don’t have to deal with who we really are.’”

Diggs smolders at the center of the show. He’s got the tentative step and haunted, flashing eyes of someone hunted, someone walking through a nightmare, but he’s also bursting with vitality and wit. Parks is too smart a writer not to have a trenchant sense of humor, and Diggs’s quicksilver Leo is often the vehicle for it. He’s made it in this world by “sheer force of will” (it’s his mantra; he repeats it the way that Dawn repeats her “one of the good guys” refrain), and Parks knows that this kind of strain has a strangely paradoxical quality to it: It sharpens a person and wears him down at the same time. Whether he ends up breaking through or simply breaking — that’s the question.

It’s with Sadoski’s boyishly pouty Ralph that the parable of White Noise becomes as devastatingly hard, clear, and disturbing as a conflict diamond. Ralph is a wannabe fiction writer who’s a part-time professor (“for kicks or slumming” snarks Dawn), and when we meet him, he’s been passed over for a tenure-track promotion that he was “promised” in favor of “someone who writes sonnets. A fucking Shakespeare-wannabe.” “He’s from Sri Lanka,” Ralph whines to Misha after melodramatically interrupting the broadcast of her show. “He’s dark-skinned and identifies as black. Which, yeah, okay. And he’s always talking about the Tamil Tigers … And how they’re like the Black Panthers which somehow gives him some faux Black Power cred which is some bullshit. It’s so totally annoying … A second-rate person has my job just because that second-rate person is black.”

Misha has no patience with this crap, but she does have patience — way too much of it, and love too — for the person who’s spewing it. With Ralph, Parks has created the perfect individual embodiment of a certain insidious brand of white male entitlement and discontent. Because his father beat his mother and left when he was young, Ralph “grew up poor.” He believes he’s earned everything he has, and that he deserves all of it and much more. But in his teenage years — boom! There was that windfall from his dad. Now he walks around more convinced of the reality of his (comparatively few and normal) hardships than of his immense wealth. Parks has taken social capital — simply, the inherited power and privilege of being a white man — and turned it into actual cash. Cash that Ralph throws around but doesn’t identify with, cachet that comes with a whole horrible history that he will not acknowledge as his own. “I have this fear,” he splutters to Dawn, “in my stomach. And my feet. The skin on my feet is crawling. And the ground underfoot is shifting. And I don’t know who I am. And the only thing I know is that I know the horrible truth: Life. Hates. Me.” That, Ralph, is known as not getting what you want. Pull up a chair, stay awhile.

It’s excruciatingly clear from the beginning that Leo’s experiment will become Ralph’s toxic playground, as the chill progressive bro whose students call him “Righteous Ralph” starts to twist and distort and expand, his white resentment ripping out of him and growing into a monster like the Xenomorph in Alien. He makes a blood-chilling group of “new friends” who get together to talk about how they “don’t want to be passed over or excluded or disenfranchised.” Sadoski is bluntly terrifying as he smiles at us, eyes glazed over, high on power and noxious affirmations, and explains blithely: “We want our piece of the pie. I mean, say you were sitting down at say, Thanksgiving dinner and all the pie had been sliced and distributed and then someone comes in late … and you have to cut off a piece of your own pie so they could have some. Sure you’d do it but you’d feel sore, right? That’s just what we’re feeling. Sore. We’re just a little sore. It’s kind of a big sore, actually. Festering.”

The awful irony is that there is a big festering sore at the middle of Parks’s play, and at the middle of the nation. But the wound isn’t exclusively Ralph’s. Amazingly, he’s managed to take possession even of the right to be the injured party. The final taut crescendo of Parks’s play — which, unfolding at the bowling alley, reveals Leo as a seething player in a game that Ralph owns — heads for a climax that is, somewhat miraculously, equal parts shattering and anti-apocalyptic. I found myself thinking of something the playwright and performer Heidi Schreck said in a recent interview I did with her and (to bring him back again) Tony Kushner. She talked about wearing a pair of shoes that cut into the back of her ankle and not noticing the sore until it was bleeding out of control. “I kept thinking about our ability to just … live with a seeping wound and not notice it,” she said. “And one of the things for me that kills hope is denial, right?” White Noise pulses with this same recognition, bracing against the pain, that all the destruction of our moment needn’t — mustn’t — be the be-all and end-all. That our moment is in fact a moment — not a death but a guts-rearranging transformation. Parks was a writing student of James Baldwin, from whom she borrows the epigraph for White Noise, and her play powerfully transmutes his epigrammatic wisdom into boldly embodied truth: “Not everything can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

White Noise is at the Public Theater through May 5.

Theater: Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise Is Sneakily Radical