theater review

White Girl in Danger Is a Bloody, Messy Take on the Soap

Michael R. Jackson’s Strange Loop follow-up is a fascinating fiasco. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

When Meagan, Maegan, and Megan, the three popular-girl main characters from the town of Allwhite, introduce themselves in song, there’s another girl dancing behind them, trying to mimic their choreography and pull in a bit of their spotlight. That’s Keesha, a “Blackground” character played with a rictus smile by Latoya Edwards, who in the heightened soap-opera reality of Michael R. Jackson’s musical White Girl in Danger dreams of escaping her stock story lines about racism, slavery, and police violence and getting to have fun playing in the white girls’ world of horrible boyfriends, eating disorders, and serial killers. Keesha mirrors them exactingly, trying as hard as she can to become, essentially, another imperiled white girl — and to abandon her Blackness in the process.

Over the course of White Girl in Danger, which contains as many twists as a soap during sweeps week, Keesha manages to usurp the power structure of Allwhite before facing a racist backlash and a more personal reckoning. Jackson’s musical is a sprawling tribute to, and critique of, the tropes and stars of American serialized dramas, overflowing with pointed references — characters named “Judith White,” “Zack-Paul Gosselaar,” and “Shannon Whiterty” — as well as media-studies thesis–esque arguments about their treatments of race. Like many soaps, it’s also a hot mess, though an ambitious and fascinating one. The musical is overlong, and its pacing is disjointed, lingering too long in some situations and then suddenly leaping into others, often hand-waving away logic and character motivation. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has taken Jackson’s already maximal script and gone even bigger: The set’s painted in garish acid and pink hues, the blaring sound design obscures a majority of the lyrics, and the performances are dialed up the realm of that Saved by the Bell episode about caffeine pills. White Girl in Danger both wants to offer up a soap-opera thrill ride and dismantle the ride as it’s running. By the end of the show, it has twisted around and smashed into itself.

The first act of the musical proceeds as a fairly straightforward soap send-up with Keesha trying her best to integrate into Allwhite’s high school and win over Meagan, Maegan, and Megan (played to the hilt by Lauren Marcus, Alyse Alan Louis, and Molly Hager) as they avoid a mysterious serial killer on the loose. Jackson, who went furiously inward with A Strange Loop, pushes in the opposite direction here, aiming for broader comedy and heightened emotion. That musical had a number about Jackson’s stand-in, Usher, embracing his “Inner White Girl”; here, Keesha becomes a white girl on the surface level, too, her hair turning blonde as she gets closer to the narrative center.

The setup leads to some of the show’s best jokes. Each of the three M(a)e(a)gans has her own comedic game — one’s a rich bitch, one’s a cheerleader with an eating disorder, one’s a “klutz” who keeps getting abused — and her own boyfriend, all played by Eric William Morris, offering variations on the theme of douche. Morris’s scenes often repeat three times over for three swats at similar punch lines. The songs pull from the sound of ’80s and ’90s rock (maybe it’s the high-school setting, but I thought of Carrie the Musical) and are invariably up-tempo and belt heavy. That detail is partially intended to be a critique, expressed by one of the characters in the show, of the relentless peppiness of soap operas and of the way Black actresses in contemporary musicals ensembles are often recruited to do vocal runs. But if everything is heightened, then nothing is. Keesha keeps talking about how she wants to get a “moment of truth,” as the white girls do, a climactic bit of catharsis. Edwards, playing her, ably shifts from naïveté to menace to physical comedy, but White Girl in Danger itself needs to slow down and give her some emotional truth to play, too.

In White Girl in Danger’s second act, Keesha becomes the queen bee. Keesha rules Allwhite as an Obama–Meghan Markle–Olivia Pope figure (Montana Levi Blanco pointedly costumes her in a white pantsuit), parroting the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion while establishing a new regime that’s just as unequal but with herself on top. The comedy turns lacerating but less contained as Jackson fires a shotgun at “bougie Blackground social climbing.” The emotional stakes, however, come out more clearly here. Jackson establishes a rift between Keesha, with her selfish assimilationist ambitions, and her mother, Nell (Tarra Conner Jones), who dutifully takes on a series of supporting roles as lunch lady, nurse, district attorney, and, in a clip that plays during intermission, an Oprah figure hosting a show called Mammy. Jackson mines a quarry of class and generational differences, brought out by Jones and Edwards’s believably fraught mother-daughter dynamic. Nell doesn’t understand Keesha’s white-focused ambition (and, as one song sends up, her lust for white boys), while Keesha is embarrassed by the way Nell appeases the demands of the “Allwhite writer” who crafts their stories.

There’s more to explore there, but soon that writer’s demands get increasingly ludicrous. Characters are arrested, suddenly revealed to be lesbians, and set into a wild chase in the woods before Keesha and Nell, in a move that ends up recalling Keanu Reeves confronting the architect of his simulation in The Matrix Reloaded, eventually meet their maker. By that point, White Girl in Danger ends up resembling A Strange Loop. It’s personal, quieter, and, for all its metaness, direct. The scene is almost compelling enough to make you go back and reevaluate the rest of the musical and wave away its flaws as intentional. But what you want more is for the author of White Girl in Danger to go back, pull together another draft, and work those ideas into the bones of the show itself.

Over at BAM, you can find a companion piece to White Girl in Danger in The Wife of Willesden, about the notion of inserting a Black woman into what’s considered a white story line. In Zadie Smith’s first play, the novelist brings The Canterbury Tales into a North London pub with a Jamaican-born British woman named Alvita (Clare Perkins) as the Wife of Bath, going on about her husbands in knockoff shoes and a tight red dress. Smith, clearly, is enthusiastic about Chaucer’s work and wants to get the audience excited about it too, though the play slips into the zone of something like an extra-credit project for a college class on English poets. Smith translates the Wife’s language into rhyming “North Weezian” (your program comes with a guide to North West London vocab) as Alvita describes her experiences with five husbands and then tells a folktale, originally Arthurian, now set in 18th-century Jamaica. While the updates are clever, they don’t tend to add much; Smith’s focus is more on using the modern setting to get you interested in the original rather than allowing it to alter the texture of the story itself. Smith pointedly keeps a few phrases, like one in which the Wife says she’d marry any man, tall, short, Black, or white, which comes off as “Nudge nudge, look at Chaucer, more contemporary than you’d expect.” Still, Chaucer slash Smith’s rendering of the Wife of Bath turned Willesden remains an indelible character, a woman who is both proudly bawdy and yet contradictorily committed to fidelity. As Alvita, Perkins holds court over the theater, playing someone grand, charming, rude, and captivating. I’d like to have a pint with her in any century.

White Girl in Danger is at the Tony Kiser Theater through May 21. The Wife of Willesden is at the BAM Harvey Theater through April 16.

White Girl in Danger Is a Bloody, Messy Take on the Soap