Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

White Noise
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Sovereignty, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Dance Nation, and This Side of Crazy

Chris Herbie Holland, Therese Barbato,
Aimé Donna Kelly, and Nick Dillenburg

Photo by Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
It's no secret the relationship between the police and people of color is fraught at best, and toxic (or fatal) at worst. Even more broadly, the relationship between people of color and the political and social power structure in America seems to be on exceedingly thin ice. As Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), one of four characters in Suzan-Lori Parks's White Noise, which recently opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Peet's Theatre, says: "The social contract is broken."

While it may be broken on a macro level, when we zoom in for a closer view, there are wonderful examples of people from diverse backgrounds getting along and caring for each other. In fact, playwright Parks gives us two of those examples: Misha, who is African American, is in love with very white Ralph (Nick Dillenburg), an English professor who has come into a major inheritance. Their best friends Dawn (Theresa Barbato) and Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) are another interracial couple. All four seem to be deeply in love with their partners, and each other, since Leo once dated Misha and Dawn and Ralph used to be a thing, and all four of them formed a band in college that made one record but went nowhere.

College is now in the rear-view, and each is working at making their way in the world. Misha is a vlogger with an online show called "Ask a Black," in which she takes calls from (mostly) white people who want to ask questions that would be cringe inducing if asked in a more face-to-face forum: "Why are black women so upset when I want to touch their hair?" or "Are we gonna have a race war anytime soon?" Misha answers all with grace, humor, and more than a little stereotypical strong black woman sass: "I dial up the Ebonics" she says, because she feels her viewers won't trust a black woman who doesn't sound like what they think a black woman ought to sound like. Dawn is an attorney, "one of the good guys" as she puts it, currently working to free a young black man. Leo is an insomniac, and it's his sleeplessness that sets the plot in motion.

Leo has been an insomniac since he was five, when a teacher casually mentioned that "one day, the sun is going to die" and he started staying up all night to make sure it was there in the morning. Leo worked his way through pediatric insomnia to adolescent insomnia to "just plain insomnia." But, while on one of his early morning perambulations through an affluent neighborhood, he is harassed by police and bloodied in the process. Dawn wants to sue, but Leo has another plan for dealing with his shame—and it's as shocking to the rest of his friends as it is to us in the audience. Although when White Noise played at The Public Theatre in New York some reviews revealed Leo's plan to "show the world how far we have not come," I think it's too much of a spoiler.

What I will say is that Parks' characters and the words she gives them to say (especially the soliloquies each character gets at one point) are thrilling and powerful examples of human beings engaged in the struggle to be both individuals and members of a larger community. And the four actors, directed by Jaki Bradley, portray these characters with intensity, humor and passion. Though the play drags ever so slightly in the second act, the nearly three-hour running time isn't nearly enough to explore all the complexities of even these four characters, let alone the broader complexities we all face in trying to find an equilibrium of some sort between diversity and commonality. As Misha says, "Racism is a virus and we all get it."

Leo, by his own admission, has done everything "right" his whole life. Good grades, followed the rules, built a career as an artist, but it suddenly means very little after his encounter with violent white privilege. Meanwhile, Ralph (whose students love him but publishers don't feel the same about his fiction) is passed over for tenure, which is given to a Sri Lankan professor who identifies as black. These circumstances bring the two into an absurdly co-dependent relationship that ends up testing the ability of this loving group of friends to remain so. And if this tiny cadre of intelligent, progressive, cosmopolitan 30-somethings can't manage to get along, what hope is there for the other 7+ billion of us? As Misha says (and Ralph appropriates), "Waking up is hard. Staying woke is harder."

White Noise runs through November 10, 2019 in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees have been scheduled Thursday, October 10 and Thursday, November 7 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $57-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets available online at, or by calling the box office at 510-647-2949.

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