For days leading up to the night I saw Help, I mistakenly referred to it in conversations with family and friends as The Help. Perhaps this was laziness on my part, associating Claudia Rankine’s latest theatrical endeavor with the Oscar-winning film by the almost identical name. Still, both pieces stemmed from literary sources (Rankine’s essay, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked,” and Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, respectively) and were interested in the experiences of Black women navigating white-dominant spaces—a motif represented visually by the key promotional art for each. Images for both productions featured Black female characters standing aside or among white ones. What varies is the gaze of the woman in the center. In The Help, a white woman stares forward (Skeeter, played by Emma Stone). In Help, it’s the “N-word” (in this case, the Narrator).
It is a simple distinction with straightforward implications. Unlike Stockett’s story, Rankine’s Help is told from the point of view of a Black woman. She is the one we travel with, empathize with, and listen to most often. A good chunk of the play’s text is taken verbatim from that aforementioned 2019 essay, published in The New York Times. “I Wanted to Know…” is the result of a social experiment Rankine conducted, in which she asked white men she encountered in business-class airline cabins about their white male privilege. It’s an absorbing read—but also a bit of a spoiler-laced one if you prefer to go into the play with a tabula rasa.
According to Alex Poots, the Shed’s artistic director and CEO, Help is one of a series of works “commissioned and produced by The Shed that innovate on the dramatic monologue.” This commission actually came before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but closed during previews in March 2020. Hints of what has happened in the interim between that March and our current one have been added, resulting in the hyper-relevant version of the play now running at the Shed through April 10.
Help, much like the essay that inspired it, poses a legion of questions that interrogate the socialization of white men and the results of that socialization on Black women. Perspective is defined early on when the narrator exclaims, “I am here—not as I—but as we—a representative of my category—the approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population known as Black women.” I thought to myself: same. It is a bold venture to claim to represent all 26-plus million of us, but one I was willing to submit to while in Claudia Rankine’s care.
Help and its questions are delivered to us by April Matthis, an actor so settled in the role you could have convinced me she was in the room when Rankine wrote it. She guides us through the moments of the play, at times narrating scene action from the outside, at others jumping in. At all times, she is the sole non-white body in a company of 12. Approximately 90 percent of the text spoken by white characters in Help is taken from comments in response to her Times essay, interviews conducted with white men, and statements made by politicians, authors, and other public figures—everyone from Cruz to Coulter, McConnell to Musk. I imagine dramaturg Robert Duffley (and for the 2020 production, Casey Llewellyn) had quite a time, alongside Rankine, dredging up these figures’ more well-known instances of racist rhetoric. I wish I could say familiarity with the ignorance spouted by these characters kept the pain down, but honestly, it only regurgitated it. The white patrons populating seats around me also seemed affected. I wondered if they were also growing increasingly anxious, nervous about the mental well-being of the play’s shining Black star.
While it is perfectly worthwhile for plays to talk to white people about their privilege, at this moment I am interested in just straight up taking some of it away. First on my list to be eradicated: their existence as society’s presumed default, a privilege that has been sheltered at all costs. At first, Help pokes fun at this assumption: “Today, behind us, are representatives of, apparently, the category,” Matthis says, referring to the legion of white actors sitting behind her, that italicized “the” drenched in sarcasm. But all too quickly, Help perpetuates this assumption, and that satirical dig turns on itself as Matthis spends the show’s remaining 89 minutes addressing the entire audience as if we are all similarly in need of lecturing about the social consequences of white male dominance. In Help, there is no space for Black women like me to have an educational experience—only a relatable one.
She goes on to say, “You’ve joined us here in our liminal space, a space neither here nor there, a space we move through on our way to other places, a space full of imaginative possibilities.” This notion of the liminal is deliciously dramatic, and referenced in every explanatory material I have seen about Help. It is important, however, not to confuse liminal with neutral. First- and business-class cabins are not neutral. As Help reminds us over and over again, there are protected assumptions about the people who “belong” in those spaces. That’s why white characters ignore the Narrator’s drink orders, step in front of her as if she is invisible, or create their own lines when they don’t want to wait at the back of already formed ones—all these intricate instances of social privilege, performed with no rebuttal or consequence. Someone with an interest in interrogating social interactions among the races might be better suited watching a play that takes place on more level ground: a few moments before the gate, say, at the check-in counter lines, or in the TSA mazes at JFK airport. I can promise you that white men cutting lines in those places would absolutely be checked, especially by a Black woman who has had a day. I’ve seen my grandmother do it more than a few times, and I would pay endlessly to see that onstage.
But I have no interest in rewriting Rankine’s play. As previously mentioned, there is value in having public conversations about what I’m tempted to call semi-segregated spaces. Help is in good company with plays like Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview and Dave Harris’ Tambo & Bones, which perform similar feats, though I would argue that those plays do more work to include Black audiences along the way. As I type this, SCOTUS nominee Kentaji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings are playing in the background. Though I am wearing a smile as prideful as that of Jackson’s daughter in Sarahbeth Maney’s viral photo, as I listen to the more nonsensical inquisitions by Republican counters, I really do want to call out, “Help!” If the mission of this play is to recreate a professional Black woman’s shared reality—one where “there is agreement not in how to respond but in what we see is happening”—the play succeeds.
Misogynoir is happening. While I have never been invited to occupy the halls of the Supreme Court and I am more accustomed to coach than business class, as a twentysomething Black female journalist working in the American theatre, I can still attest to this. I just wish I didn’t have to. Help indeed!
Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a NY-based freelance writer and the co-editor of 3Views on Theater. Bylines can be found at Zora, Glamour, InStyle, Backstage, and a few other places on the internet. She can be found on Instagram at @brittaniidiannee.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!