Cultural appropriation runs amok in White.
James Ijames, who is a gay Black man, has written a play about two characters who are not gay Black men. With the information he provides, Vanessa appears to be (Santoya Fields) a straight Black woman and Gus (Adam Donovan) a gay white man. The playwright represents both their points of view, along with two more supporting characters, Jane (Luisa Frasconi) a straight, white woman and Tanner (Jed Parsario) a gay Asian man. Artists give themselves permission to transcend everyday constructs like race and gender. But when Gus, a promising young painter, hires Vanessa to pass his work off as hers, the characters risks being accused of culturally appropriating her.
Gus’ friend Jane runs a contemporary art museum. Historically, it’s known for its collection of white male artists. Jane wants to change that lack of diversity in a new exhibit that exclusively features artists of color. When she visits Gus at his studio, Jane likes his work well enough but won’t include it in the show. For her, his whiteness cancels out his queerness, a first for him. Gus’ career is in motion but getting a coveted spot in the show would have boosted his profile. After she leaves, Gus expresses his frustration and sadness to his boyfriend, Tanner, who is understanding — up to a point. When he returns to his studio later, Gus falls into a consoling daydream.
Fields appears on stage for the first time in a fantasy sequence as a sequin-gowned Diana Ross. Everything that made Ross a star inspires Gus — her image, her voice, her charisma, her radiance. She appears to be the manifestation of his inner diva. But Ijames wants the audience to question whether or not this white “dude”’s identification with a Black woman is an act of racial tourism. With his privileged status, is it inappropriate of him to do anything other than listen to her music in private? It’s Vanessa who brings Gus’ fantasy crashing back to earth when she visits his studio.
Vanessa’s an aspiring actress who takes an improv class with Tanner. That’s what brings her to Gus’ mind. If he can convince her to masquerade as a painter, he believes Jane will buy the ruse and she’ll take Vanessa’s/Gus’ paintings into the show. White hinges on Gus’ ability to convince Vanessa it’ll be worth her while to help him deceive Jane. His first attempt fails. To show her that he’s down, Gus swishes his hips, snaps his fingers, and adopts the cadence of a Black woman. But his interpretation of female blackness has been filtered through pop culture stereotypes, and the audience gasped and vocalized their dismay at his tone-deaf imitation. Vanessa addresses this politically incorrect faux pas by asking him archly, “Have you ever met a Black woman who talks like that?” Flabbergasted, Gus has no reply.
At the end of their first scene together, she walks out on Gus, telling him that he may need her but she certainly doesn’t need him. Her speech is cogent, impassioned and logical. But when she comes back the next day, Ijames writes a weak-kneed sentence or two explaining why she’s changed her mind. It’s not as convincing as her previous speech. But the playwright wants White to double as an art world satire. Gus’ oils on canvas are abstract studies of the color white. In other words, they’re essentially meaningless.
Vanessa sees nothing in them but Ijames rolls past her strongly stated set of reservations. She and Gus start collaborating on a character for her to inhabit. They come up with the fictional Balkonaé, an urban lesbian in dungarees and boots who gradually competes for space in Vanessa’s consciousness. In this strange vortex of overlapping selves, Vanessa culturally appropriates herself. She becomes the work of art, not Gus’ blank paintings. White is an updated version of the Pygmalion myth. It’s self-love that brings another aspect of Vanessa’s character to life and not the artist’s manipulative hands.
White, through Aug. 5, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $25–$42; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org