One of the more remarkable aspects of the bold and engaging White, currently in production by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, is that James Ijames’ inspiration for the play is taken from a real event — a white male artist hired African-American actresses to present his works as their own, causing a brouhaha at the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art.
In White, Gus (Adam Donovan), a talented, up-and-coming white male artist is hoping that his old friend Jane (Luisa Frasconi), who is the new curator of the prominent (and fictitious) Parnell modern art museum of New York, will include his latest white-on-white painting in her new show. But Jane has other ideas. She finds that the museum’s “perspective was decidedly homogenous” and that her first exhibit will “reflect the true range of America.” So, as a white man, Gus is out of luck. The fact that Gus is gay does not exempt him from the curse of being a “white dude.”
At this point, White moves away from being a satire of modern art — which we’ve seen in the theatre before, for example in Art by Yazmina Reza — as we see a new aspect of the formerly mild-mannered, amiable Gus. He won’t accept this unfamiliar feeling of rejection, and is outraged by Jane’s discrimination. The novel emotion for Gus leads to uncomfortable discussions about race with his Asian lover, Tanner (Jed Parsario) who tries to talk Gus down from his unthinking position that success is his due. Rather than accept defeat, Gus plots to have his work displayed at the Parnell by hiring an African-American improvisational actress, Vanessa (Santoya Fields) to pretend to have painted his work.
The play lights up as Gus and Vanessa have humorous interchanges about race, ethnicity, gender and their stereotypes as they develop Vanessa’s alter ego, the artist, Balkonaé (never pronounced “Balcony”). Some of the exchanges are so funny that the audience’s laughter covered over the next line in the play. The two riff on African-American names, The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family and Myspace. At what age would Balkonaé have read Zora Neale Hurston, Vanessa wonders. Balkonaé’s hair style, sexuality and speech patterns are decided, as Vanessa asserts that she, not Gus, is in charge of the Balkonaé personae.
If you think you know where White is headed, you’ll likely be wrong, as playwright James Ijames creates an ingenious, almost surreal, twist at the close of the production, as Vanessa struggles with her dual personality. Although powerful, it seems out of sync with the rest of the play.
The cast and direction are first rate. Adam Donovan is excellent conveying the likable but bull-headed Gus, who is blind to the benefits society has bestowed upon him. As Tanner, Jed Parsario is earnest, engaging and believable, although his reasonable voice is ignored by Gus. Luisa Frasconi gives Jane the right degree of patrician-like attitudes, combined with a blankness about real life. But the majority of the kudos go to Santoya Fields, who not only excels as Vanessa and Balkonaé but also is great in her two cameos as Gus’s imagined muse, the diva Diana Ross (Ulises Alcala, Costume Designer). Director M. Graham Smith keeps the 100-minute production happily on track. The set (Nina Ball) is clever and sophisticated and it works very well.
The real issue with White is that it is difficult to delineate James Ijames’ message since so many diverse ideas are jumbled in. A lot of the play is clever and humorous in its view of the art world and race relations, but then the ending abruptly changes the mood. It’s as though the author couldn’t decide whether his work is a character study of Vanessa, or about an art prank that highlights white male bigotry. Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about White because it addresses important issues in an enjoyable, stimulating and provocative way.
White is playing at the Ashby Stage at 1901 Ashby Ave. through Aug. 5. Advance reservations strongly advised. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players’ website.