Of white on whiteat JACK.
Illustration: David Gonsier
The brick room has been covered in a tasteful beige rug. There’s an accent wall at one end painted with a pretty brown suede boot, a sideboard with drinks laid out, and a coffee table in the middle of the floor. There is just enough room for the small audience to sit in two concentric circles, as if we had shown up to a busy book club. When the band members arrive – a serious group of white city dwellers who meet regularly to discuss issues of race and racism – they raise their chairs to join us, closing the circle. It’s inviting, inclusive. In the settings.
We are not in a living room, of course; we are in a setting by Mimi Lien at the JACK in Brooklyn, where Robert Quillen Camp white on white begins as a subtle comedy, written with an almost seamless naturalism, and ends… somewhere else. We learn a lot about the characters just from their animated arrivals, the way they check in (or don’t) with each other on shoes, masks, snacks. Host Hannah (Nisi Sturgis) and her husband, Peter (Brandt Adams), don’t agree enough enthusiastically druthers their guests around masking, for example, and you wonder what other evasions they make in the name of comfort. Host Seb (Heather E. Cunningham) documents emotional moments before they happen, which means we can feel them below, pulsing: Some things boiling in philosophy professor Henry (John Lenartz), and mechanic, O’Reilly (Peter Mills Weiss), also seems tense. He clearly doesn’t want to check out a transmission for arrogant Michelle (Rebecca Mozo) and distracted Riley (Dinah Berkeley), but the pair push and push until he says yes. These little butterfly-wing interpersonal pressures demonstrate power and who lets it go, even in a group trying to be sensitive, to be careful, to be aware.
The screenplay, expertly directed by Alec Duffy and Lori Elizabeth Parquet, keeps its knives in its sheath for almost 50 of its 100 minutes – everyone seems to be making a good faith effort. Peter de Lenartz is the skeptical newcomer to the affinity group, reluctantly nodding, intrigued by their habits and language. The others have been meeting for a while; they are quite advanced in the (metaphorical) textbook of eliminating racism. “I know for a fact that I’m a racist,” O’Reilly calmly explains, which Peter handles. But when O’Reilly tells Peter that It is racist too, gets angry Peter. As the plot unfolds, it echoes the white stepparents podcast, which traces the counterproductive forces at play in school desegregation. It’s elegant writing, delicately juxtaposing what’s persuasive about this kind of work and what isn’t, and it’s accurately, if not superbly, performed.
But white on white think there’s something else to say about whiteness, something that Robin DiAngelo or anyone else doesn’t cover. Strange sounds enter the cozy room; mysteries abound. The band sings together and the lyrics can get a little weird. “Every tree is online and networked / Self-coded in the storm,” they sing. “Every leaf and magnetized pattern / Towards a constellation of terrors and strange affairs. Set against the sky. Disappear a little… Disappear. These choral moments, composed by Duffy, are warm, but the language is surprisingly apocalyptic. The Henry’s ability to quote Moby-Dick and a domestic crisis (Hannah and Peter’s daughter went to Starbucks, but no one knows which one) keeps our attention primed for Melvillian imagery of leviathan-like whiteness. When the horror finally arrives, it’s ecstatic, Cronenbergian, and bizarre.
I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. The trend in new writing now is to start with a realistic portrayal of a group – full of crosstalk, simultaneous dialogue, social comedy and elliptical politics – and end with bloodshed and suggestions of the strange. ritual.. Movies like Ari Aster Midsommar have explored the model, but Annie Baker is the most influential writer using the technique on stage: The Lovecraftian creepy-crawly at the end of her The antipodes could have given rise to certain elements in White on white. Right now on New York stages, the structure is everywhereby Tracy Letts Minutes on Broadway (a city council meeting turns into a bloody liturgy), to the often excellent Angela Hanks Body They Ritual (friends at a spa retreat stumble upon the “ascension” ceremony of a local suicidal cult) in Clubbed thumb Summer Works Festival.
What’s going on? Don’t get too worried about that, but it certainly seems like people are increasingly afraid of affinity groups, churches, civic gatherings, councils, and indeed meetings of all types. Analogue cinematic horror of the 70s and 80s (The wicker man, children of the corn) was about village life and rurality – we knew we were killing small towns and retaliation was coming. What we are killing now is public life itself, and so every group where two or more are together becomes another chance to open the jaws of hell. The similarity of content makes sense. But there is also the question of formal echoes. Too many of them, seen so close together, can start to sound like clichés: bacchanalian madness that happens on a rigid schedule (at minute 60 someone will hear something scary and ignore it; at minute 90, look for the blood pack) can make that savagery tame.
Paradoxically, what is not tame in white on white is all before chaos. There’s electricity in the way the production brings us all together, in the clever way Quillen Camp ties the piece to recent events, in the virtuoso orchestration of the characters and their intense efforts at reasoning and argument. The Dionysian parts of the show are only usable, but the Apollonian sections, when the characters use rational means to navigate their way through their disagreements, are a thrill. (Berkeley even accompanies the band’s songs on a zither, which sounds a bit like Apollo’s lyre.) We’re living in chaos right now, so the wild-eyed stuff may have momentarily lost its impact. Thought and precision are the wonders these days. These are the things to worship.
white on white is at JACK until July 9th.