violaleeblue emailed the group about seeing White Noise at the Anspacher Theater in The Public Theater. Daveed Diggs was one of the stars, which was good enough for me but then I saw it was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, one of my favorite playwrights. And it was directed by The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis. I was definitely in. We managed to get tickets (all partially blocked view) for a show that is just about sold-out for every night of its run.
I did not know anything about the play and did not read anything beforehand. As rtb, her sister, peg, Mrs. Devereaux, Peter, and I gathered in the lobby, rtb said she had watched a video that showed the actors bowling. Bowling? How are you going to bowl on that small stage? It was a mystery. Unfortunately, violaleeblue, who had set the whole evening in motion, was sick and could not join us.
The Anspacher Theater is upstairs and is actually the second largest of the Public’s five performance spaces with its 275 seats. There are three sets of stadium seating looking down on the floor, two columns with lights and scaffolding surrounding them, and a pathway between the sets of seats. There was no curtain upstage but there was a long white board. You could see two gutters grooved into the floor on either side that came from backstage and rounded onto the stage. Centerstage was a pink vinyl chair and stage left a refrigerator. Downstage was a small platform that was hollow.
Peter and I had the last two seats in the last row of the seats stage left. Our view was partially blocked by the column. Just before the play began, the usher pointed us to two seats two rows ahead of us in the center of the row. My guess is that they would have the latecomers sit in our seats so as not to disturb anyone. Their loss was our gain. Our view was now unobstructed.
Looking at the Playbill, I saw that the other male lead was Thomas Sadoski, who is another actor that I love to watch. I think both he and Diggs have wonderful charisma. I was not familiar with the two actresses in the play but they were both excellent.
Watching a video with an interview with Parks, Diggs, and Sadoski, when the humor in the play was being discussed, Parks said the first joke is the name of the characters. They are taken from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The characters are Leo (Diggs), Misha (Sheria Irving), Ralph (Sadoski), and Dawn (Zoë Winters).
The play begins with Leo’s solo. He gives us some background on everyone while sitting in the pink vinyl chair. They met in college and the couples were first paired by race (Leo/Misha and Ralph/Dawn) and then after college the couples switched partners (Leo/Dawn and Ralph/Misha). They had a band, which is why Parks has each person take a solo during the play. Leo and Ralph were on the bowling team. Leo suffers from insomnia. It has been going on since he was a child. He does not sleep at all. At night he goes for walks. One night he is confronted by the police. This racist incident gives Leo an idea for how to feel safe, which eventually sets off the confrontations among all four of the friends that ends the years-long friendships.
Dawn is a lawyer, working to free a poor kid, who she knows is guilty. Misha has a live streaming show Ask a Black, where she puts on an exaggerated accent and movements while she answers white people’s questions about black people. Ralph is a teacher, who grew up poor but inherited money from his wealthy father and has been passed over for a job that he feels was because of affirmative action.
The Spot is the bowling alley where they gather after-hours once a week. They pick up the balls from the gutter and bowl them under the platform. We get plenty of sound effects so we can hear the strikes and gutter balls. In the interview, Diggs said that he is a terrible bowler and originally Eustis wanted them to bowl in between the sets of seats. Diggs told him not to do that because he will kill an audience member with a wayward ball. They did take some lessons, but all they needed to know was good form for throwing strikes. Winters had the most difficult time because originally, she was supposed to be left-handed (not mentioned in the play, so that must have been cut out) and she is a righty. She learned to bowl lefty and actually did well. I cannot remember whether she was a lefty or righty when we saw her.
Leo quotes Thomas Jefferson and that made me smile. I do not know if that was one of Parks’ jokes or not. The play is intense and very serious. But it also has its light moments and can be very funny. There are moments when I was surprised the audience was laughing – maybe it was nervous laughter. But one of the things I love about Parks is her ability to mix the drama and the comedy – it works. It is there from the beginning with Leo’s solo.
What is the play about? Freedom. Freedom to be angry. Freedom to be safe. This country was founded on the principles of freedom. But that freedom only existed for those who were white. And male. So, the play is also about slavery. And fear. Which were also there when this country was founded. As Eustis says in his notes in the Playbill – one could not exist without the other.
The final confrontation happens between Ralph and Leo at The Spot. Both are filled with rage and fear and it spills out verbally and physically. You know this ending is coming – it cannot end any other way – but the brilliant acting and writing still transport you.
At the curtain call, I could still see the rage in Diggs’ face and the tears in Sadoski’s eyes. As they walked off stage, Diggs put his hand on Sadoski’s shoulder and smiled in an “everything’s cool” manner and I realized that I finally was letting out the breath I had been holding onto since the last scene. The actors were okay. But would we (the audience) be okay? It was a lot to take in and a lot to process. I am still thinking about this play weeks later.
The play was three hours long with only one 15-minute intermission and the time flew by. I would like to give shout-outs to Clint Ramos (scenic design), Dan Moses Schreier (sound design), Lucy MacKinnon (projection design), U. Jonathan Toppo (fight director), and Jeremy Kyle Lewis (stage manager). Also involved in the production was Toni-Leslie James (costume design) and Buzz Cohen (production stage manager). There were two interesting credits in the Playbill – Michael Rossmy and Kelsey Rainwater, who were the intimacy directors. This is a new field that should have always existed but has become important finally. There are people on set to teach you how to fight so as not to hurt each other. Now there are people to help you with sex scenes, so that people (usually women) are not abused and not hurt.
By Carene Lydia Lopez