Suffering from insomnia and an inability to create, artist Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) comes up with an unsettling plan. Leo asks his best friend Ralph (Nick Dillenberg) to buy him. For forty days, Ralph will own him as a modern-day slave. This request is especially fraught because Leo’s black and Ralph’s white. To make sense of the project, Ralph’s girlfriend Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly) wonders if this is an attempt by Leo to move his stalled career away from painting and toward performance art. Leo’s girlfriend Dawn (Therese Barbato) is justifiably disturbed by Leo’s idea. She was at home the day before when Leo returned to their apartment with bruises on his face. On an afternoon walk, the police randomly stopped and handcuffed him before hitting his face against the sidewalk.
After suffering from this trauma, Leo doesn’t seek counseling or justice. He comes to this unexpected conclusion instead. When he expresses the thought out loud to his friends, the theater tenses up with an uneasy energy. Suzan-Lori Parks structures White Noise (through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Rep) around the intensity of that moment. She writes an opening monologue for Leo to focus our attention on him but doesn’t prepare us for the shock of what’s to come. Dawn describes him as a “wounded bird,” as if that might account for the extreme position Leo takes. She also doesn’t accept his marriage proposal. He’s suffering from a variety of ills, that’s plain to see. But it’s hard to determine which path he’s on, to heal or to harm himself.
Parks provides a monologue for each of the four characters but only Leo’s brings his vulnerability to life. They all met in college a dozen years before. In their first iteration as a group, the playwright configures the couples by race — Ralph and Dawn versus Leo and Misha. In their present-day romantic entanglements, both white characters slip out a racist remark to their black partners. Ralph, an assistant professor, is passed over for tenure in favor of a Southeast Asian scholar. Venting in frustration, he tells Misha that the other man got the job because of his skin color. She sighs and lets the comment go, at least for a time.
After he was accosted, Dawn asks Leo why he was in that neighborhood in the first place. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask a partner what they were up to, especially after something terrible has happened. Both actors pause after Dawn asks it. There’s an unspoken implication that Leo shouldn’t have been in such a posh part of town. Dawn apologizes for, what we’re meant to perceive as a thoughtless remark, but the exchange feels like a trap that’s set up for Dawn. The playwright isn’t just asking if Leo can be in a relationship with a white woman. Or Ralph with a black woman. Parks is asking, more specifically, if blacks can trust whites at all.
As vital and valid as that concern is, White Noise complicates the personal lives of these characters by adding another subplot. There’s an ongoing affair within this foursome, which changes the audience’s understanding of the fluctuating power dynamics between all of the various lovers. While the game of musical bedrooms explains some of the emotional sadism and withholding, these intrigues felt extraneous to the essential matter of what it means to be a master or a slave. How did Leo come to the conclusion that enslavement would lead to his liberation? And how would his best friend treat him once he was owned? Parks ends the first act with both parties agreeing to this mad experiment and then doesn’t hold a tight focus on the shifting interplay that should develop between Leo and Ralph.
Part of the problem is that Ralph’s psychology is inconsistent. Two out of three of his longtime best friends are black but he’s willing to enslave Leo without much of a pause or an internal debate. Wouldn’t the lived-in reality of his friendships inhibit him from signing the contract Leo’s dreamed up? Dillenberg doesn’t initially hint that Ralph is perverse, heartless or mean-spirited enough to agree to the plan. He’s disappointed with his professional life and tells us about his abusive father but would those factors negate his affection for Leo? And, by extension, would he really be willing to risk alienating Misha? Parks has written him as a generic, white everyman. He’s bad in the same way that the boyfriend in Midsommar is — lunkheaded, insensitive and oblivious to his bro’d out male privilege. In White Noise, owning a slave is the implicit shared fantasy of every white man who feels like they’re part of a dying breed of American manhood.
In their own peculiar ways, Dawn and Misha are also morally compromised. Dawn’s a do-gooder, a social justice lawyer and a guilt-free, serial adulterer. Whereas Misha, in her own words, admits that she’s “performing blackness” in her online advice show. Leo’s also chosen to be part of a mixed race peer group who have mastered the art of betrayal. The riffs in White Noise may not cohere but Parks method is expansive and impressionistic. She’s defined a new “me” generation. Despite all of their self-knowledge, they’re woefully unable and unwilling to connect or care for each other when it counts the most.
No one on stage is as pure-hearted as Leo. He’s seeking out actual intimacy. His woundedness is only part of what’s disabling him and his artistry. Leo’s aware of the indignities and dangers that come with living in a society that’s ruled by a white majority. Parks’ appalling — but realistically portrayed — depiction of contemporary slavery resonates because he’s lost the will to fight against the neverending static of all that harmful white noise.
White Noise, through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $30-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org