The best way to sum up the Bridge Theatre’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise is that it is the only time I have left the theatre in floods of tears –
Not good floods of tears. As I walked home from the theatre, I felt the need to call my mum and unpack the 3-hour performance I had just experienced.
I don’t know if anyone else left the theatre feeling this way, but it was clear that the intention of White Noise was to shock; to anger; to outrage; to provoke discussion. The play commences with the revelation that Leo (played by Ken Nwosu) has been a victim of police brutality. His white girlfriend Dawn (played by Helena Wilson), who is a lawyer, urges him to find justice in a court of law. Leo, however, has other ideas: just before the interval, he presents the proposition to his white friend Ralph (played by James Corrigan) that he wants to be his slave. After some reluctance – and against the protests of Dawn and Ralph’s girlfriend Misha (played by Faith Omole) – Ralph agrees to become Leo’s ‘master’.
Initially, Leo thinks that his arrangement with Ralph has worked out for him: he feels protected by his friend’s wealth and whiteness, and even begins to be able to sleep again. By the end of the play, however, Ralph has forced Leo to wear a punishment collar (a genuine historical artefact that Ralph obtains from a museum of slavery); has effectively forced Leo to participate in a slave auction in which he is bid upon by a group of white men and claimed Leo’s lived experiences as his own in an article about ‘wokeness’ which Ralph sells to The New Yorker.
The play is clearly a satire of contemporary race relations. It reminded me of the plays of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins or Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview or Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play in its employment of distressing material and shock tactics to point out to a largely white middle-class audience that the legacy of slavery still permeates race relations in the twenty-first century.
The problem was that – in the same vein as criticism of Spike Lee’s BlackKklansmen – the white characters Ralph and Dawn were such caricatures of unlikability that I imagine it would have been impossible for white middle-class audience members to see themselves in them. This is not to say that James Corrigan and Helena Wilson did not do a great job of portraying these characters: they were thoroughly detestable. By writing these characters to be so unlikeable, however, it felt impossible for white audience members to identify with these characters at all. Instead, it felt all too easy for white audience members to separate themselves from the racism enacted by Ralph and Dawn and to see themselves as the ‘good guys’. This was, for example, evidenced by the easy way in which white audience members laughed at Ralph and Dawn’s monologues, distancing themselves from these characters. For me, this seemed to undermine Parks’ overall intention with the play: to hold a mirror up to the audience.
So, if the play failed in making white audience members understand how they might contribute to the upholding of racial hierarchies, did it at least serve its Black audience members? I can only speak for myself and no, it absolutely did not. Watching a three-hour play in which a Black man stands with a punishment collar around his neck or a Black woman monologues about the unavoidable ‘lostness’ of the African diaspora brought me to tears. I’m not saying that all theatre featuring Black actors needs to be uplifting or needs to be about Black joy, but there is a pain in our inheritance and our lived experience that can be cathartically and productively presented on stage. This didn’t feel like catharsis.
This felt hopeless: white people were presented as evil and Black people were condemned to suffering. Even worse, as the audience erupted into a standing ovation, it felt like all the pain we’d seen on stage had been reduced to apolitical art. Something a middle-class audience could happily consume, then resume their lives and easily forget about.
This is not to say I could not appreciate the skill of the cast, crew and Parks herself. Ken Nwosu effectively portrayed the physicality of the insomniac Leo and Faith Omole was charismatic and layered in her portrayal of Misha. Set, lighting and sound design were also effectively designed. Parks’ skill as a playwright was exemplified in the ongoing metaphor of ‘white noise’ and the carefully planned structure of the play: while initial scenes were between the couples (Leo and Dawn, Ralph and Misha), as the underlying racism of Dawn and Ralph surfaced the scenes themselves became segregated with Leo and Misha, Ralph and Dawn appearing in duologues.
However, I question why the Bridge Theatre felt the need to stage this play at this time. The Bridge Theatre has the capacity for large audiences that – unlike some of London’s smaller theatres, such as the Bush Theatre, Gate Theatre or Soho Theatre – might be willing to pay more for their tickets. They draw crowds by casting big-name actors in well-known works. So, if they wanted to switch things up and stage a play specifically about the Black experience, I think they should have used their platform to commission work by a young Black British playwright; a play that specifically spoke about the realities of British racism so that audiences had no chance of failing to identify with the events presented on stage.
But, really I guess I’m tired of seeing plays about Black pain – at least such gratuitous representations of Black pain. The theatre ecosystem is already hard enough to survive within. When I’m sitting in the audience, I want to see fantastic Black actors portraying the work of fantastic Black playwrights and feel fantastic – not broken – as I leave the theatre.
It’s up to you whether to watch it or not, but – not to denigrate the cast and crew – this Black history month, there’s definitely other productions I’d rather be watching.
White Noise plays at the Bridge Theatre until 13th November. Book tickets and find out more here.