theater review

Help Is an Essay Dressed Up As a Play

April Matthis in Claudia Rankine’s Help.
April Matthis in Claudia Rankine’s Help. Photo: Kate Glicksberg/ Courtesy of The Shed

At its core, Claudia Rankine’s Help, now at The Shed, is a pointing finger, a signpost indicating the path to racial truth-telling. (“For white audiences,” says Madani Younis’s producer’s note, “it is an appeal not to turn away from deep reflection, conversation, and anti-racist action.”) Its mission is urgent and its title desperate, yet Help is full of a certain dramatic lethargy. Rankine’s text is doubly retrospective: It gazes back at the discourse of 2020 — it was originally made for that doomed spring — while looking farther back to Rankine’s own experiences, interactions she thought through publicly nearly three years ago. It’s a risk in any work that tries to fix something as swift and turbulent as “conversation” — what should move at the speed of engagement, turns slow.

To fulfill her Shed commission, Rankine has expanded the piece she wrote for the New York Times in 2019, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked,” by turning it into a dramatic essay with dance breaks. A narrator (April Matthis) restates some of the analysis from that article, while white men and women in suits are (chorally, exaggeratedly) unhelpful. Publishing her Times piece yielded dirty riches: Rankine got more than 2,000 online comments, many supportive, but many others defensive, imploring, derailing, outraged.

What is perceived as white privilege by some is really just an observation that white people tend to understand and embrace the dominant culture of this country. By doing so they naturally enjoy the benefits of swimming with the current—success comes more easily.

However, the dominant culture is colorless.

“You couldn’t make this stuff up!” Rankine (or someone) must have said, looking at the range of white fragility on display. And so she includes several of those comments, collaging them with her own ruminations and a scattering of historical statements you might find in her Yale class on the “Construction of Whiteness.”

Rankine, one of the country’s most acclaimed poets, essayists, and thinkers (what hasn’t she won?), is not a playwright. So how do her modes of speech translate to the theater? Her texts do need help to become drama; essays don’t just grow into theatrical events untended. When the Foundry produced The Provenance of Beauty in 2009, directors Melanie Joseph and Shawn Sides intervened intensely: They put the audience on a bus in the South Bronx, piping Rankine’s hymn to the neighborhood directly into our ears via headset. To deal with the pesky theatrical question of “what will the people look at as they listen,” the Foundry chose the city itself — so Rankine’s text commented on a landscape that moved (and honked) past our window. Her language thus had its necessary counterpoint: the Bronx’s fullness against her poetry’s economy; the streetcorner’s pizzicato against her versifier’s swing.

Help’s theatrical choices are more anemic. Matthis is playing a “writer, professor at prestigious university, 50s”—in other words, an approximation of Rankine herself. Direct-to-the-audience lecturing comes easily to Rankine, and so we get a great deal of that in Help, delivered both straightforwardly and with irony.

There is a sly humor in how Matthis bounds out at the beginning of the show, microphone in hand. She cannot help but be wry — Matthis has one of the great “I’m unimpressed” expressions in the New York theater — and she, Rankine, and director Taibi Magar do a good job of playing with the audience’s expectations of instructive speech. “I am here — not as I — but as we — a representative of my category — the approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population known as Black women,” Matthis says. (The audience applauds.) “Within this category, there are many names for me. ‘Sojourner Truth.’” (The audience applauds.) “Diamond and Silk.” (The audience starts to applaud, realizes too late that they’re applauding people they don’t want to applaud, gets bashful, stops.)

Things get dicey, though, when the show pivots from the auditorium to the spectacle. Behind the narrator is a glass-walled room (designed by Mimi Lien) filled with blue pleather office chairs that, when rolled into formation, look either like airplane seating or the waiting area of an airport. Rankine’s article dealt a great deal with airports — it’s where she has encountered micro- and macroaggressions, mostly in the line for first class. (It does not do the evening a favor to constantly remind us of this.) The Rankine-avatar delivers her talk; white folks from the airport lounge pop up and recite fragments from public speeches, the Times comment section, interviews, or viral videos. There’s a bit of Mitch McConnell, a bit of Trump, a bit of Amy Cooper.

Many of the performances by the chorus are grotesque, their postures ostentatiously signaling the absurdity and error of their positions. Occasionally Matthis talks with a white guy on a plane or in the airport, and she elaborates on and explains these brief interchanges. A white man who wouldn’t talk to her after she made a joke about Trump spurs her thoughts on how likely it is that he voted for him. In another sequence, she is ignored by a female flight attendant, and the white man next to her protests on her behalf. An ally! But when the narrator jokes “She just likes you more,” his response intrigues her.

He perhaps thought I was speaking about him, and blushed. Did he understand I was joking about white male privilege? It didn’t seem so. 

The red crept up his neck into his face, and he looked shy and pleased at the same time. He brought both hands to his cheeks as if to hold in the heat of this embarrassing pleasure.

What will white men do with themselves when they understand all the love coming to them has actually been coming to their category?

This pattern of brief-chat-followed-by-rhetorical-questioning repeats throughout without changing much — certainly not enough to solve the “what will we look at” problem. To add energy, Magar has the white chorus do various dances choreographed by Shamel Pitts: they scooch around the stage on the rolling chairs; they strut in a kickline or mill with purpose. Unfortunately, these moments look like exercises from an Introduction to Viewpoints class — they never achieve their own force, purpose, or excitement. They also create stage pictures that run counter to the show’s own ethic. As the white people run around, Matthis stands off to one side, even though the point of Help is that Rankine chooses to enter into that pale crowd. When friends and a therapist (Tina Benko) tell her to simply detach, she insists: “I understand avoidance of the white man is one mode of survival … but I just want to talk.”

It’s not only Magar’s mise-en-scène; Rankine’s text also fails to demonstrate these wished-for real contacts, always shying away from the conversations into Rankine’s miked asides. Late, late in the play’s hour and 40 minutes, the piece takes flight when Rankine dramatizes a conversation between the narrator and the narrator’s white husband. Matthis puts the microphone away, and the two characters simply speak with one another. It’s lovely and difficult and useful. For a show about dialogue, Help sure makes us wait a long time for an actual one.

Rankine is interested, she tells us, in category — she wants us to think clinically about racial categories (she quotes statistics about the outsize representation of white men in positions of power), critically about the categories of action and intent (she points out that white women are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action programs). But the wide disparity in the power between her written essay and the theatrical performance points to another problem of categorization altogether. Should Rankine’s material be a lecture? Or this quasi-dramatic piece? Put Matthis at a lectern and have her just read the script — and we might just see the show turn into itself.

Help is at the Shed through April 10.

Help Is an Essay Dressed Up As a Play