After she won the Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog, one approached a new play by Suzan-Lori Parks with great expectations–expectations that are strongly rewarded by her latest work, White Noise. While the title refers specifically to the hissing sound made by sleep machines, meant to lull and keep you asleep, it also hints at the many racist issues this new, smart work traffics in.
Sleep is immediately referred to during the opening monologue delivered by Leo (a highly energized and fantastic Daveed Diggs), a black painter who begins by saying, “I can’t sleep, alright.” According to Leo, he hasn’t been able to sleep since he was five years old, when his grandmother told him the world was going to come to an end. But nor is his “pediatric insomnia” “alright,” since instead of sleeping, Leo goes on long walks by himself late at night, and he was recently “roughed up” and hurled to the ground by racist cops, breaking a tooth and injuring his face.
The three other characters, in this compact if expansive work, include Leo’s white partner, Dawn (Zoë Winters), a defense lawyer, and their best friends and another couple, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski) and Misha (Sheria Irving). While the white Ralph is an English professor and a would-be writer, the black Misha makes short videos and posts them online.
When Leo claims, “I thought they were going to shoot me,” Dawn encourages him to sue the police. But Leo also says he doesn’t want to be “one of those brothers done wrong,” who then lives his life “framed by injustice.”
As we eventually learn, all four characters went to college together and formed a band called “Clover.” But it’s also telling that, at the time, Leo’s partner was Misha and Dawn’s was Ralph, making them non-mixed couples at school. Their highly incestuous relations make them now each other’s best friend–or are they? For one thing, when Leo proposes to Dawn by presenting her with a ring, she proves reluctant. Could it be that she’s still in love with Ralph?
Misha has a live-streaming call-in show, “Ask a Black,” which is one way for Parks to inject some humor in the proceedings, even if, during one call-in, Misha says, “Racism is a virus, and we’ve all got it,” before adding, “The workings of the virus are getting more complicated and the rewards are getting more sophisticated.” But beneath it all, White Noise is a deadly earnest look not only at racist issues, but love, life, parents, self-reflection and career matters as well.
The simple yet ingenious set design by Clint Ramos includes two curved, beveled gullies, which appear quite odd until bowling balls eventually come pouring out of them whenever the characters are at a bowling alley, which is to say, often. As we learn during Leo’s opening monologue, he and Ralph were the bowling champs on their college team. As Misha says, the four of them go bowling, “every Thursday, like church.” And as we learn a bit later, Ralph “inherited a robust chain of bowling alleys coast to coast,” making him a rich man, which figures in an important way later in the story. Ralph and Dawn even make love at the bowling alley near the end of the play.
The clever costume designs by Toni-Leslie James feature black shirts, illustrating the couples’ past and their present with musical clefs and their individual names on the front, and with the band’s name and bowling pins on the back.
The racist underpinnings of White Noise move front and center when Leo persuades Ralph to make him Ralph’s “Enslaved Person,” to be under Ralph’s “protection,” by being his slave. Leo even had a contract drawn up, legitimizing the agreement. Leo will be Ralph’s slave for 40 days, receiving $89,000 for the arrangement, allowing Leo to pay off his credit card debts and his student loan.
This all develops at the end of Act I, and the second act opens appropriately enough with Leo polishing Ralph’s shoes, while Ralph emerges from the bathroom in a bathrobe, carrying the “sizable” contract, which he’s been reading and continues to do so. As soon as Leo falls asleep, snoring, Ralph wakes him up. This is shortly before he forbids Leo to read or write or use a cell phone for the 40 days of his enslavement. Though being a slave was Leo’s idea, once Ralph agrees to it, like the playwright who conceived him, Ralph means business.
Leo proceeds to quite literally whip up a soufflé for Ralph. Ralph even has a tee shirt made for Leo that says, “SLAVE,” explaining that “the logo’s on the front and back so they can see you coming and going.” Ralph also presents Leo with a large iron “punishment collar,” which, despite how dangerous it can be, Leo puts on.
But being a slave apparently agrees with Leo, as we learn from him that he’s now getting full nights of sleep for the first time since he was five years old. In a sense, Parks has created a jigsaw puzzle no less than a play, as everything seems to refer to everything else even as it all comes full circle in the end.
Under Oscar Eustis’.s careful direction, the four-member ensemble is giving what can only be summarized as an organic and naturalistic performance. In addition to Diggs’ ferocity, Irving displays Misha’s non-stop perky gestures. If Winters and Sadoski seem more reserved as Dawn and Ralph, this may be yet another racist statement, about how whites are less vivacious than blacks.
White Noise operates on so many different levels at once, that it leaves you ruminating on what you saw days later, which is generally true of only the finest plays.
White Noise (extended through May 5, 2019)
The Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: three hours including one intermission