By Kim Jackson
What will an artist do to get a piece into an important exhibition? Gus, a painter and a white, gay man wants to be in a major art show that seeks to showcase a wider diversity of artists, so he enlists an African American actress, Vanessa, to become the “new voice” sought by the museum. But Gus neglected the lessons of Dr. Frankenstein: when you mess with humans, you are never really in control of the outcome.
The Bulldog Ensemble Theater production of White explodes with crisp, Mamet-like dialogue, delivered with perfect comic timing. Jameeka Holloway-Burrell directs with a practiced eye to delivering a funny, mesmerizing, profound, and intimate audience experience.
James Ijames’ immersive play finds the humor in our beliefs and challenges our thinking at the same time. And like a roller coaster, the 90 minutes flew by way too quickly.
A.C. Donohue begins this thrill ride with a highly entertaining performance as Jane, the passionately gushing curator of a renowned art institution. While somewhat exaggerated at times, her character’s arc added to the twists and turns of the plot.
Jordan Clifton’s energetic portrayal of Gus perfectly conveys his character’s overwhelming need for affirmation and attention. His boyfriend, Tanner, played with heartfelt composure by Raely Qiu, is a foil to Gus, exposing the painter’s lack of self-awareness and confidence, as well as his flaw of seeing himself reflected in others.
But it is the character of Vanessa that proves to be the most intriguing. Monét Noelle Marshall marvels as the actress who agrees to perform as Balkonaé Townsend, a dramatic artist of color, just the type the museum wants to promote. At first, Vanessa tentatively challenges Gus. But as she works with him to create a biography, she embarks on her own creative journey, becoming Balkonaé, emboldened and demanding to be visible on her own terms. Marshall embodies the transformation (and another surprise role) with a remarkable virtuosity that truly captivates.
While the performances in this production are outstanding, it is the way Ijames handles the issues of race, gender, and privilege, with bite and humor, that fuels the dramatic tension and elicits a response. Just as Balkonaé pushes Gus to interrogate his prejudices and stereotypes, we are asked to do the same, to see what is visible when we look at others, not what we project.
White runs through June 9th at Durham Fruit & Produce Company. For more information visit: https://www.bulldogdurham.org/.
Photo by Alex Maness.