For decades on American stages, the kitchen-sink drama reigned. Though these plays were often written and performed by white artists, their plots did not directly examine whiteness. More recently, contemporary plays have traced the economic anxieties of white families in the midst of a vanishing middle class (Sweat, The Humans, Women of a Certain Age), but until this season, most works by white playwrights haven’t explicitly treated what it means to be white.
This self-exploration—as evidenced by three spring shows in New York City, Eliza Bent’s Aloha, Aloha or When I Was Queen, Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, and Bruce Norris’s The Low Road—means an increased awareness of privilege, guilt, and blind trust in a system that has advanced white people at others’ expense. It’s been a hot-button issues for white writers, whose liberal ideals have been in a kind of existential limbo since November 2016. But whiteness by definition can’t be addressed without reference to its relationship to other races. So might artists of color, by offering an outside perspective, have keener insight into white identity? And how well do the aforementioned white writers (whose plays also employ white directors) tackle race?
It depends on the playwright. Harmon, whose play premiered at Lincoln Center Theater and will next go to Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., takes the most biting—and misguided—look at white liberalism. Admissions follows Sherri, a prep school administrator who prides herself on increasing the campus’s population of color. But when she learns her son is deferred from Yale while his friend—a biracial student with lower SAT scores—is accepted, Sherri implies the friend was admitted based on race.
We wait for the friend to show his worth has nothing to do with his race, but Admissions features no characters of color—an intentional choice that succeeds in unearthing white liberals’ hypocrisy but also effectively silences the voices of those not even included onstage.
Is that Harmon’s point? To show that white, diversity-advocating educators don’t actually understand race? It’s a fine line—one he crosses later, when we meet Sherri’s son, whose deferment leads to a screed in which he posits that he might have been accepted if he were not white, and how hard it is for white people to understand race. But this mammoth monologue is merely a setup. It employs confirmation bias to excite Lincoln Center’s predominantly white audience (“This kid gets it, race is hard to comprehend!”), only to have the son pull a 180, withdrawing his applications to open spots for people of color. In this, Harmon wants to magnify the son’s sudden white guilt by contrasting it with his earlier speech, but this ploy feels indulgent, as if the son’s good intentions make up for the disturbing claims Harmon armed him with earlier. While Harmon wants to show the conundrum white people face when confronting race, in stripping the agency of people of color—by making their identity first the son’s complaint, and then his problem to solve—it reverses rather than forwards the discussion.
White guilt is more adeptly handled in Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, which heads to Broadway this June after premiering in 2014. Like Admissions, Lee’s play centers on a white family, but she takes a surprising angle by not skewering the play’s titular species. Instead she paints what The New York Times called a “compassionate and stimulating exploration of one man’s existential crisis.” When Ed and his three sons gather for Christmas, they become increasingly troubled by their identity and the social currency it holds; the most sensitive in the pack spontaneously breaks down while eating his—wait for it—Chinese takeout. Unlike Harmon, Lee successfully portrays the paralyzing effects of white guilt without also creating a latter-day Archie Bunker to spew the racial rhetoric of generations past.
Norris’s scathing satire The Low Road, which closed at The Public earlier this month, also confronts race but does so through the back door, cracking open the most monstrous white invention of all: capitalism. (Unlike the aforementioned plays, Norris’s isn’t set in the present day, apart from a brief, fanciful flash-forward section, but it is grappling with similar themes.) The Low Road’s Colonial-era protagonist is Jim, a white man, and its secondary character is John, a black man who is a slave for much of the play and often serves as the token person of color who educates white people about their entitlement.
Norris shows that even white men who benefit from capitalism are undermined by their system. After a life of Machiavellian avarice, Jim is knifed by an unknown assailant—perhaps “the invisible hand” striking back. But if Norris is attacking the detriments of white capitalism, might he have wielded a stronger case by making John the protagonist? It’s true that Jim is the least likable person onstage—indeed, almost all the white characters are mercilessly indicted for the blindness, greed, and hypocrisy—but it still falls to John to educate the white characters about their privilege. When a white family in The Low Road proposes a more equitable future, its members contradictorily suggest granting education for all (while ensuring their children have the best tutors), and creating affordable theatre tickets for the many (but putting the best people in the priciest seats).
But if Norris succeeds in lampooning his white characters, he perpetuates an old trope in casting John as an imprisoned man, a secondary character, and an aid to the evolution of white characters’ outlooks; this closely grazes the “magical Negro” stereotype, also on display in the character of Belize in Angels in America, by which white writers employ characters of color to show us their white protagonists’ blind spots, sacrificing their own narratives to further those of their more advantaged peers.
By contrast, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate accomplishes this satire of whites’ selfishness and entitlement without perpetuating that old trope. Like Straight White Men, Appropriate both dissects whiteness and also premiered long before this season’s crop of white identity plays (Jacobs-Jenkins’ play debuted at the Humana Festival in 2013 and at New York’s Signature Theatre the following year). Appropriate turns the age-old death-reunites-a-family drama on its head, revealing an even uglier side to the usual family dysfunction. When siblings find disturbing photographs of lynched African Americans in their deceased patriarch’s home, they treat them as precious heirlooms, seeking to reappropriate them to make a profit or incorporate into an educational program about racism’s legacy.
Fish don’t know they’re in water, so Jacobs-Jenkins dumps the whole tank out, showing white people not just the status they’re unaware of but also the injustice they’ve caused and continue to benefit from.
White writers have historically taken up space telling their stories and others’, but artists of color have turned the tables, holding a mirror up to their white peers, exposing their flaws and challenging their viewpoints. If Lee, Jacobs-Jenkins, and a host of other playwrights of color have already written compelling plays that mine whiteness, is white writers’ belated examination of privilege merely an expression of privilege?
This very well may be, and here I am—another voice in the white multitude, trying to learn from mistakes while preemptively feeling guilt about future ones. And I will continue making mistakes. But writing is a medium to help finesse thoughts, and if white people are (finally) taking the step to understand their privilege, I’ve learned it’s best to assume good will. But it is equally important to hold us accountable. This is something Aloha, Aloha explores, and Eliza Bent’s new play may sketch a way forward for white people to step into the minefield of race.
Running at Abrons Arts Center in Lower Manhattan through April 21, Aloha explores the missteps white people can take when confronting identity. Playwright/performer Bent (a previous writer and editor for American Theatre) recounts childhood anecdotes of appropriation that could make for squeamish stand-up but instead function as cutting examples of how white people can channel shortcomings into self-rectification. After each awkward story, she invites the audience to say, “Cringe”—not to offer reconciliation but instead to goad Bent (and fellow whites in the audience) toward a deeper reckoning. In this, Bent lets her audience hold her responsible: She casts the first stone by pointing the culturally appropriating finger at herself before choosing to proactively tackle race without making it anyone else’s problem but her own.
It’s a stance she and her director, Knud Adams, took together. Knud too is white, and was part of the project before the play or its concept were mapped out. But both artists made sure to include voices of color in Aloha’s creative process, per the designers and acknowledged artists listed in the program. As white artists seek to excavate privilege, a topic inextricably tied to the subjugation of people of color, they should continue to—and will benefit from—including and elevating marginalized voices in these conversations and developmental processes.*
In short, perhaps before we pick up the virtual pen and dash off our thoughts on this fraught topic, we ought to pause, and include, and listen. The best theatre has always been collaborative. The subject of race invites—indeed requires—deeper, more conscious collaboration than ever.
Billie McEntee is a freelance arts journalist who has written for Vanity Fair, The Brooklyn Rail, and HowlRound, among others.
*This post has been updated throughout.