“Inside every gay man is a Black woman,” shouts Gus (Adam Donovan), throwing up his hands. In the context of the world of James Ijames’ “White,” what might have once been seen as funny and relatable here elicits groans from everyone in the audience, just as the playwright intended.
In “White,” Gus is a struggling artist hoping to get his pieces in the Parnell, a prestigious museum where his best friend Jane (Luisa Frasconi) is curating a “New America” exhibit. The purpose of the exhibit is to get the traditional white male figures off the museum’s storied walls and instead offer space for more artists of color. While talking about her new exhibit, Jane makes one thing clear: the more diverse, the better, which means there is no space for Gus’ work in the exhibit. Despite being gay, Gus still wields the privilege of being a white man.
The show holds within it the admirable aim to depict the way marginalization still exists in a purportedly “post-racial” society. However, this is an argument that entirely requires nuance, which “White” struggles to convey. The audience is spoon-fed the full spectrum of privileged ignorance through Gus. While Gus may be the protagonist, the secondary characters offer much more compelling perspectives on race and intersectionality.
Gus wrestles with respecting intersectionality and understanding how the marginalization of his gay identity intersects with the privilege of his white and male ones. To combat this, Gus decides to hire a Black female actress, Vanessa (Santoya Fields), to pose as the artist who created his paintings. Together, the two create a character named Balkonaé, a cocktail of a woman taking full control of her female, Black and queer identities and pulling from them nothing but power.
The show features a small cast with only four actors, and each character represents an entirely different worldview. The one thing the characters all share are surface-level good intentions — that is, until they don’t. This choice to shy away from a transparent bad guy allows audience members to see themselves in each of the characters. The work demonstrates an understanding of its own predominantly white audience at Shotgun Players by showing how good intentions can still result in microaggressions and harmful impacts.
The piece struggles between making Gus both tolerable enough to comfortably grab most of the stage time while still being inarguably problematic and ignorant. However, it carries within it a distinctly surrealist undercurrent, with Gus experiencing hallucinations and Vanessa being overtaken by the created persona of Balkonaé. While this mediates some of the inconsistent characterization, questions about the ultimate values and motives of the characters still linger.
In many ways, the show feels gratifying as the audience watches characters skewer Gus and cut right to the intentions behind his coded language and microaggressions. But the other characters are not offered space to grow, to tell their own stories. Because the play is told almost exclusively through Gus’ perspective, Vanessa lacks agency as an independent character, her development as a Black woman only existing within the narrative of a white man. All the more, the other white character in the show, Jane, is in no way called out to the same degree as Gus. Her problematic behavior is not addressed by the other characters, and her ultimate “skewering” is left to the audience instead of the script.
In a perfect world, “White” would take its own advice and take the white man out of it.
“White” will run through Aug. 5 at Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage.