Also see Fred's review of That Championship Season
Three individuals sit separately (on white furniture) and face the audience. Actor Jason Asprey plays Alan Harris, a college professor who livess in New York City's Stuyvesant Town district. He speaks about the Dutch and a time period within that context of New York. Harris explains that "the lens of history illuminates the present." Harris is stirred by one student named Felicia - who is African-American. He is quite intrigued with her and comments upon her world. She is from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn where, Alan discovers, the word stupid is equivalent to good. Clearly, Alan thinks often, speaks often of Felicia.
Seated a few yards to Alan's left is Martin Bahmueller (Michael Hammond). Originally from Brooklyn and now based in St. Louis, the lawyer happens to have a black administrative assistant. He wants people to dress conventionally, listen to classical music. Martin makes plenty of money. He confesses that he pretty much wishes not to see people with gold teeth, people "dressed like hoods, killers." Later in the play, he poses questions: "I'm supposed to feel shame? Dark is good, pale is bad?
The third character in the play is Mara Lynn Doddson (Dana Harrison), who is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was a high school cheerleader. She married her sweetheart who was then a wrestling champion and something, physically, to admire. He has, evidently, lost his physique and is now driving a truck. Further, their son is seriously ill and Mara is reliant upon the advice of a dark-skinned physician from India, Dr. Singh. She is, to understate, skeptical. Mara also found her husband having sex with an Asian woman. She is fretful about her son's rare form of epilepsy and his brain. She wonders about her own self and future.
As directed by Anna Brownsted, White People provides one monologue after another; the actors on stage relate to the audience rather than to one another. The material is not new but it is timely. The incident involving the arrest of the Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, by Cambridge, Massachusetts policeman Sergeant James Crowley which occurred in mid-July, drew acute responses and critiques which were mixed. White People will be taken, by some, as same-old; by others as contemporary, relevant, and vital.
Michael Hammond, completing his seventeenth season with Shakespeare & Company, is also in his final week as Iago in the Founders' Theatre production of Othello. His Martin is authoritative, antagonized and suitably irritating. Jason Asprey (with the company for fifteen years) looks the part of Alan Harris, midlife academic. Asprey has a natural British accent and this was most appropriate as he played the title character in Hamlet, which ran for the entire summer and closed last week. The dialect slips into his speech pattern as he plays Alan Harris. Frankly, it would work for Asprey to stay with his given accent for White People. Consistency is required. This is talented Dana Harrison's fourth season in Lenox and she does quite well with Mara Lynn Doddson. She begins with a small town Southern drawl and holds on to it. Harrison's Mara Lynn is still attractive and it is easy to imagine her as a pretty, teenage young woman.
White People is effective and engaging. It is not terribly edgy or biting. The subject matter is contemporary and the topic fully sustaining. Three quality actors do well with a script that remains most pertinent. Its import sustains the play.
White People continues at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox, Massachusetts, as part of Shakespeare & Company's season, through September 4th. For ticket information, call (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol