Bridge Theatre, London – until 13 November 2021
This feels like a howl of baffled frustration, from a millennial generation (writer and director, and all four characters) unable to deal with the emotional legacy of a long-ago slave trade: none of them yet, often to their credit, finding it possible in today’s America to follow Marley’s instruction and “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. A long stage thrusts defiantly into the audience: eventually becomes a shooting-range, with a nice mechanical coup-de-theatre taking us by surprise first time (good old Bridge!). But first, it has to roll us into the bedroom and kitchen of two interracial American couples as their old college foursome-friendship disintegrates.
Suzan-Lori Parks (a Pulitzer winner) in 2016 called it her “angry play”; reworked for this European premiere directed by Polly Findlay, it is angrier still after the George Floyd murder and the confused angers of identity politics and easy offence. The young people’s hidden attitudes glide like monsters under a smooth veneer of well-meaning wokery. Sometimes it is entertaining in a despairing sort of way; sometimes alarming.
Leo is a nervy, insomniac black artist not doing well, living with Dawn, a right-on white lawyer; Ralph is a well-off liberal lecturer whose girlfriend Misha runs a whoopingly cheerful online show called “Ask a black!!” Showily supportive to Misha, really Ralph is seething at losing a promotion he wanted to a Sri Lankan. There’s a sly suggestion that not being of African heritage, the brown man doesn’t really count anyway. Meanwhile, Leo has been stopped and thrown on the pavement by police. Dawn wants him to sue, but he doesn’t trust the system to be on his side, and instead demands that Ralph buys him as a slave. What? Well, “Back in the day” , Leo reckons, a powerful man’s slave would have protection as a chattel. It is mad and tasteless, even for the forty days Ralph unwillingly agrees to. But the strength of the play is that we can both see his mad ideological reasoning and see that he is on the edge of a breakdown anyway. One of the group immediately assumes it’s performance-art, being videoed, which again tells us something about the times.
It plays on, sometimes for laughs but increasingly frightening as white Ralph, naturally, gets a taste for being Master. Even joins an absurd White Club which endorses him. One scene has the whole audience gasping, no spoiler here. The second half in particular is peppered with monologues, sometimes too long but rich in ideas about racial misunderstanding and the sort of hostility that gets a friendly well meant gesture condemned as “white saviour!”. It tangles with other human discomforts: unequal relationships, money and class. Ken Nwosu is amazing as Leo, Helena Wilson every inch the liberal lawyer in a permanent bind of guilt, and Faith Omole beautifully evokes the irritation of a sophisticated black woman who, to get attention for her show has to “perform blackness” by playing the cartoonish bouncy diva her audience expect.
It is, frankly, a stretch to believe how rapidly the slavemaster experience turns Ralph into a complete fascist, but that’s the only cavil. There’s a sex scene, a betrayal, which I suppose is pretty much compulsory, but adds nothing but more pessimism. If the message is that none of us can easily escape our slaver-or-saviour mentality, it’s a grim one. On the other hand, irrespective of race you might notice that it’s the two men who go nuts, and the women who don’t. Make of that what you will…
Box office bridgetheatre.co.uk. To 13 november
‘Sometimes entertaining in a despairing, sometimes alarming’: @lib_thinks gets the grim millennial message in the European premiere of Suzan Lori Parks’ #WhiteNoise at @_BridgeTheatre. ★★★★ #theatrereviews