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White Girl in Danger

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 10, 2023

Tarra Conner Jones and Latoya Edwards
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
In his Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson skewered the predominantly white theatre industry through the main character's effort to create a "big, Black, queer-ass, American Broadway show." The result (at least for this repeat viewer) was exhilarating. In his newest work, White Girl in Danger, which is now receiving a co-production by Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater, Jackson fixes his sights on typically white daytime soap operas. Despite some terrific performances and isolated moments of blistering critique, this campy musical melodrama is disappointingly innocuous and banal.

Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the show can be characterized as simultaneously too much and too little. As the audience members take their seats, projected against the back wall is an endless loop of teasers for the daytime drama "White Girl in Danger," featuring the characters we will meet in the musical. (Josh Higgason provided the projections that merge Broadway with Television City.) During the intermission, there are more teasers as well as commercials for a fictional Black talk show called "Mammy." The recycled jokes and nonstop parody do not allow the audience to catch their breath, and running nearly three hours, the musical is enervating rather than invigoratingly acerbic.

The conceit is intriguing, though. Jackson, as he did for Strange Loop, wrote the book, music and lyrics, and White Girl imagines a soap opera set in a fictional all-American suburb, not unlike Pine Valley of "All My Children" or Port Charles of "General Hospital." The television show "White Girl in Danger" takes place in a town called Allwhite, and the central characters include Megan White (Molly Hager), a rebellious bad girl; Meagan Whitehead (Lauren Marcus), a physically abused hanger-on; and Maegan Whitehall (Alyse Alan Louis), an over-achieving bulimic. (Liz Lark Brown plays each girl's mother, and Eric William Morris plays each girl's boyfriend. Both are very funny, particularly in the moments of quick transition.)

In the background, or "Blackground," is an assortment of African American denizens representing a lunch lady (Tarra Conner Jones), a school custodian (James Jackson, Jr.), Southern plantation slaves (Kayla Davion, Jennifer Fouché, and Ciara Alyse Harris, who substituted for Morgan Siobhan Green at the performance I attended), and one perpetual victim of police violence (Tarik Blackwell).

The soap opera's dynamic changes, however, when the unseen Allwhite Writer gives Keesha Gibbs (Latoya Edwards) a featured part as the white girls' friend. Against the advice of her mother, Nell Gibbs (Jones), Keesha determines to make herself a central part of the narrative even if it means risking death at the hands of the town's on-the-loose murderer. As Keesha rationalizes, "If the Allwhite Killer comes for me, that means I really matter!"

Lauren Marcus, Molly Hager, Alyse Alan Louis,
and Latoya Edwards

Photo by Marc J. Franklin
As the Blackground characters move into the foreground, the social order is upended, and history and universes collide. It begs to be seen whether the Allwhite Writer can right the plot, thereby creating space for new stories and more diverse representation.

While the idea is compelling and the subject lends itself to satire well, the show seems like an overextended vignette from Jordan Cooper's Ain't No Mo, which performed briefly on Broadway this season, and the "White Girl" soap spoof is as intermittently funny as the recurring "Daytona Wind" sketch from "RuPaul's Drag Race" without the added fart sounds. The writing consists of an endless barrage of popular culture allusions, such as "Beverly Hills, 90210" alums, Tori Spelling, Jennie Garth, and Brian Austin Green, who are summoned with "-white" as part of their surnames. Pointedly, Keesha's mother's name and character call to mind impertinent Black sitcom housekeepers played by Nell Carter and Marla Gibbs.

Unfortunately, the musical numbers by and large do not make much of an impression, and Raja Feather Kelly's choreography lacks the cheekiness and wit he brought to A Strange Loop. Still, there is one genuine showstopper as performed by Jones and the company. "Why I Kill " references "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" with the lyric drop, "push, strike, and kill," and recalls the mother-daughter slaughter scene from Carrie (i.e., "I brought you in this world, and I can take you out"). Jones' full-throated, take-no-prisoners approach is thrilling. Reminiscent of Joaquina Kalukango, who brought down the house with "Let It Burn" in last season's dispiriting Paradise Square, Jones provides a miraculous jolt of much-needed energy. Indeed, as an 11-o'clock number, the sequence might even redeem the show, but it is followed by a long Wizard-behind-the-curtain scene that inartfully hammers home the playwright's central arguments.

All of the performers do fine work, and Edwards is also a standout as Keesha, the defiant Black teen who is unafraid "to sleep with danger." As Clarence, the school custodian, as well as in the role of a mysterious figure, James Jackson Jr. is in fine voice and helps ground the lunacy.

If not necessarily queer-ass in its production values, the design team conjures the effects of a big, Black, American Broadway show in Second Stage's Off-Broadway house. Especially dazzling are Montana Levi Blanco's costumes, which playfully capture the tackiness of 1980s teen trends and sumptuously emulates "Dynasty"-inspired sequined ballgowns for the Act II fashion show. Adam Rigg's spare and efficient scenic design and Jen Schriever's candy-colored lighting contribute to the camp artifice of Allwhite. In comparison, Jackson's belabored White Girl in Danger is not nearly as sure-footed and effortless. And that's a crime.

White Girl in Danger
Through May 21, 2023
Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater
Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: