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STAGE REVIEW

Racism and Bewilderment

Reality-radiating soliloquies in 'White People' hammer home moral bankruptcy, alienation, hope.

April 23, 1998|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Probing the insidious origins of racism in everyday tensions and frustrations is only the launching pad for "White People," J.T. Rogers' far-reaching dissection of modern alienation and moral bankruptcy. In the Road Theatre Company's riveting production at the Lankershim Arts Center, complacent notions of a stable social order are shattered through overlapping and thematically interwoven monologues from a teacher, a housewife and a lawyer who, all too appropriately, never interact.

In brutally honest confessions that eat through protective layers like acid from a battery, each circles around a moment of shattering self-definition. The approach is gradual but inexorable, as cherished beliefs collapse under a shifting social order in which whites find themselves increasingly marginalized.

The New York City college lecturer (Matt Kirkwood), obsessed with the inseparable connection between the things he enjoys and the historical horrors that made them possible, despairs at the declining standards of learning in his classes--only to find his ideal student in the person of a brilliant black girl who speaks an incomprehensible 'hood dialect.

Once the center of attention, a North Carolina cheerleader-turned-housewife (Taylor Gilbert) watches her beauty and power fading in the midst of an abusive marriage and channels her rage into ugly racial invectives. And a lawyer (David Gianopoulos), who fled the big city in a desperate bid for privilege and stability, finds the dirt under his fingernails doesn't come clean, despite his best efforts.

The generic-sounding title notwithstanding, the play's greatest strength lies in its specificity. Rogers brings to life these characters' hopes and failures through utterly believable details that radiate deeper meanings without violating their authenticity. Equally impressive is the playwright's use of intercutting soliloquies and gripping narrative to replace the dramatic arcs usually supplied by dialogue and conflict.

Production values are starkly evocative--a zoned set by Wes McBride is flanked by Preston Craig's paintings suggesting racial conflagration; David Flad's narrow-spot lighting reinforces director John DiFusco's tight focus.

The three razor-sharp performances prove savagely funny and deeply tragic, as these characters confront the unforeseen consequences of their life choices. Even when meaning escapes them, their suffering is so palpable we can't help sympathizing--and recognizing how unsettlingly easy it would be for any of us--black or white--to be swept up in the cycle of irrational prejudice and fear to which they fall victim.

The piece never strikes a false note--even the concluding ray of hope that pierces the darkness is rooted not in wishful thinking but in the small, simple gestures that could bridge barriers if only our eyes were open. Rare plays like this one help lift the veil.

BE THERE

'White People," Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends June 7. $15. (818) 377-2002. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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