After a long hiatus caused by COVID-19 restrictions, Springs Ensemble Theatre is back in action with WHITE, a dynamic new production that pulls no punches in making the audience laugh — and cringe — about race, sexism, art and identity.
Written by playwright James Ijames, WHITE tells the story of Gus, a painter trying to get his big break in the art world by answering a call for diverse artists at a major art museum. The problem? Gus is white and his is definitely not the perspective the museum is seeking. He decides to infiltrate the show by hiring a Black actress to represent his work as her own — with results that are as humorous as they are problematic. Timely, biting and darkly comedic, WHITE examines a variety of deeply uncomfortable topics that are, unfortunately, quite relevant to the current social climate.
“As a Black woman and actor, I find this show painfully relatable, and because of that, hysterical,” says director Kala Roquemore. “Black women only successfully have control over their careers, image and their own art if they can afford it. It is often that we are told — and tell ourselves — that to get ahead we must endure micro-aggressions, stereotypical roles, over- and under-sexualization and other challenges. WHITE lays everything out on the table.” Roquemore points to singer Diana Ross (who appears in the play as a bit of an… angel of reckoning) as an example.
“For many years she had no control over her image and was packaged in a way that was palatable for white consumption without being able to reap the benefits of her work. It wasn’t until more than a decade into her career that she was able to take the reins and express her true self — while unknowingly becoming a gay icon in the process. Here we are half a century later, and we may have seats at the table, but are we allowed to speak our truth?”
It might seem like a script that tackles such tough topics would struggle to win laughs. However, the production manages to be surprisingly hilarious even as it navigates some pretty awkward and downright uncomfortable moments. That is not to say that WHITE makes it easy on the audience; the word “cringe” pops up consistently in most descriptions of the play.
“Many moments of WHITE are a cringe-fest for one group or another,” says Roquemore. “I was not aware of this until the first read as I had only focused on the perspectives that were closest to mine. No demographic is absolved from ridicule here.”
Even with comedic material, creating a performance like WHITE requires balance and communication. The actors might be playing characters, but it requires an emotional investment that can be taxing on the psyche.
“I know that actor Dana Kjeldsen was often uncomfortable with the things he had to say (and do) as Gus,” says executive producer Jodi Papproth. “And Desireé Myers spoke of the mental and emotional toll playing a role like Vanessa/Balkonaé was having on her, especially when the protests were happening all around her.”
To combat these challenges, Roquemore worked to create an atmosphere that would support the actors in their efforts.
“This rehearsal process was all about permission. Permission from myself to the actors, permission from actor to actor and permission from the actors to the audience to be offended and offensive in the same breath. Delivering it as a comedy really softens the blow.”
The virtual show opens Thursday, Sept. 24. Patrons will be able to purchase an access code that will allow them to attend any performance held through Oct. 11 from anywhere they have an internet connection and a screen.
The return to the stage has been both exciting and nerve-wracking for the SET crew. Like many in the arts community, members of the ensemble have had a broad variety of experiences during the pandemic.
“Some members have not been able to work at all and others have been able to work from home. Some of us with children have started taking on the role of ‘co-teacher’ from home. Some of us have experienced food insecurity and loss of income, others have not,” says Papproth. “SET did set up a food pantry and that has helped not only our own company members but also local theater artists experiencing food insecurity.”
Papproth says that virtual attendees can expect a high-quality production — the team took great care to ensure that the video performance would not end up as “bad film.”
“The show was filmed over four live performances using three cameras and a switcher,” says Papproth. “The audience will see almost a ‘sitcom’-style presentation and hear the live audience that was there. I love how we managed to often remind the viewer that they are seeing theater.”
Roquemore is enthusiastic about another benefit that the new format provides — accessibility.
“For me personally, being housebound was eye-opening about accessibility. There are people, before and after COVID, that don’t have the luxury of leaving their homes, and I look forward to filming the rest of any shows I do to create that access.”
Sept. 24-Oct. 11, $20, springsensembletheatre.org