Thursday, February 5, 2009

White People


By J.T. Rogers. Directed by Gus Reyes. Atlantic Theater Company. (CLOSED)

J.T. Rogers' (The Overwhelming) 2001 play about three different white people and their racial prejudices is not particularly well-liked by critics. The basic skinny is that the play gradually gets more and more heavy handed and simplistic as it goes along, but that it is well-directed and acted. The oddest criticism (from my vantage point, anyway) is that the play is dated now that Barack Obama is President, as if one Presidential election erased hundreds of years of American History.

Time Out New York B+
(David Cote) Rogers is that rarest of creatures: an American playwright with a social conscience and the desire to make damning connections between human psychology and ideology. His characters are carefully shaded and self-aware, even if you know that eventually, they’ll get to the boiling point where the n-word will escape their anger-clenched lips. Spike Lee colored within these lines years ago (as did others before him), Rogers makes a thoughtful contribution to a still-touchy genre.

American Theater Web B
(Andy Propst) In White People, a play comprised of three interlinking monologues, playwright J.T. Rogers looks to explore just how deep racism runs within the white community. But though the play provides three juicy roles for three talented performers, the play and playwright expose only what is generally known to be an uncomfortable truth: adversity will bring out the worst in people's behaviors and attitudes, bigotry included....Sadly though, when Rogers' writing becomes increasingly heavy-handed, the play loses its power to inspire such contemplation. Under the guidance of director of Gus Reyes, the trio of actors turns in assured performances that easily blend comedy and drama. Dossett, in the piece's showiest role, seems to revel in Martin's temper and love of specificity and language. Brooksher's portrayal of the curiously bewildered Mara is terrifically moving at points. Shulman makes Alan a marvelously accessible everyman.

CurtainUp B-
(Jenny Sandman) While the stories and characters held my interest, I was ultimately disappointed. Playwright J.T. Rogers doesn’t go far enough. We’re treated to a panorama of racism and liberal guilt, but there’s a lack of commitment on everyone’s part. The characters aren’t truly ashamed, yet neither do they don’t fully embrace their feelings. They waffle back and forth— first angry, then embarrassed, then defiant. Don’t get me wrong, that’s exactly how it works in real life. However, if a play is going to address racism in such an upfront manner, one expects danger, discomfort, and full devotion to the issue.

The Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Rogers' 2001 play White People, presented by Starry Night Entertainment in its New York premiere, continues the conversation. The observant but heavy-handed play exposes the three title not-quite-everyday characters' intense — and un-PC — feelings about people of color... The cast give vivid performances, but the characters' situations are so extreme that the play's impact is blunted by overstatement. Rogers' play "The Overwhelming" suffered from similar overkill. C+
(Robin Rothstein) The fundamental problem with White People is that it paints a layered and complex issue with too broad strokes. In making these three people representative of an entire section of the population, Rogers presents white American consciousness in too unrealistic and narrow a way to make his ultimate message pack any sort of meaningful punch. Oddly enough, Rogers ends up also doing a disservice to the non-white population by choosing to invoke well-worn stereotypes through the eyes of his characters. Martin is frustrated by the mailroom guys who wear their pants too low and play their hip-hop too loud, Mara Lynn feels that the Indian doctor taking care of her sick child should feel lucky to be practicing in this country, and Alan can't quite reconcile the fact that one of his black female students is challenging him on an intellectual level, while at the same time wearing "earrings the size of small planets." Near the end of White People, each character reveals an incident that recently occurred, which is what has ostensibly prompted them to begin unburdening their frustrated, guilt-ridden souls to us, but these revelations seem orchestrated and awkwardly placed, and so ultimately don't feel as organically motivated as they should.

Backstage C
(Gwen Orel) J.T. Rogers' new play of interlocking monologues inadvertently argues the case that white supremacists have been making for years, which is that they are now the oppressed ethnicity. By reducing two of his three characters to cardboard cutouts, the playwright does just what white supremacists claim liberals do to them, even if he does it artfully with nice language. Rogers treats us to a Southern former homecoming queen married to a failed athlete who proclaims "We were here first" and a lawyer who swings around his golf club in his office and discourses on the importance of French cuffs. Only the third character, Alan, a professor pondering the history of Peter Stuyvesant, feels observed, with idiosyncratic human thought patterns. My guess is Rogers knows more professors than bigoted Southern housewives or narrow-minded white-shoe lawyers. Still, a play called White People ought to have more than one real person in it. Despite some retrofitted lines in which the characters bitterly acknowledge the post-racial era now upon us, this play's binary us-them approach to race feels dated.

Talkin' Broadway C
(Matthew Murray) Racism is like greatness in some ways, if we are to believe J.T. Rogers and his new play, White People, which has just opened at Atlantic Stage 2: Some are born with it, some achieve it, and some have it thrust upon them. And, oh yes, it’s a defining characteristic of American society in that it can - and does - affect people of every social background. Were this 1960 or, heck, even early 2008, this message might have an easier time gaining traction than it currently does in this one-note, monologue-exclusive examination of overt, covert, and reluctant discrimination. But the election and inauguration of Barack Obama has upped the ante for outings like this one, as a copious collection of the new president’s quotes in the show-opening audio montage makes clear. The rules have, once and forever, changed, so the dusty old games Rogers plays here aren’t as entertaining or enlightening as they might have once been.

Theatermania C-
(Dan Balcazo) "We were here first," says a character in J.T. Rogers' White People, now receiving its New York premiere from Starry Night Entertainment at the Atlantic Stage 2. "All these new people -- black, brown, yellow -- they need to see us, get behind us, and wait their turn." Sadly, this kind of heavy-handed writing is typical of Rogers' examination of racial prejudice... The cast, under Guy Reyes' haphazard direction, tends to push too hard; and they often seem to be commenting on their characters rather than fully inhabiting them.

NYPost C-
(Frank Scheck) IN White People, a sociology report masquerading as drama, playwright J.T. Rogers seeks to expose the racism that permeates every aspect of American life - a concept about as shocking as Claude Rains' discovery that there's gambling in Casablanca....The actors do perfectly well with their archetypal roles, but their performances are as unsurprising as the characters they play.

TONY B+ 11; ATW B 10; CU B- 9; NYDN B- 9; NYTR C+ 8; BS C 7; TB C- 6; TM C- 6; NYP C- 6 TOTAL = 72/9= 7.625 C+

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