Whatever you think you might know about Philadelphia playwright James Ijames’s world premiere WHITE, which opened at Theatre Horizon last night and has already extended its run, forget it. Superficially, sure, it’s about a gay, white, male painter kept out of a museum show because he’s not part of the curator’s preferred demographic. And, yes, he hires a black woman to pose as the painter of his work. But, no, you don’t see where this is going.
Art imitates life imitates art
Ijames has created a piece in which every expectation (internal and external) and stereotype gets turned inside out. Also, it’s hilarious, and not just in a jokes-that-land way (though it’s also that) but in a smart, Diana-Ross-appears-as-some-version-of-Tony-Kushner’s-Avenging-Angel way.
Perhaps you recall Yazmina Reza’s play Art, that darling of late-1990s regional theater, in which a trio of Frenchmen argues over the meaning of a very expensive all-white painting. Jamison Foreman’s Gus might as well be that painter, his geometric white shapes on white backgrounds exploring the intersection between his “white body” and his “gay body.” Or something. (Foreman is also a talented playwright whose 2009 musical Realm of the Unreal: The Vivian Requiem, based on the work of outsider artist Henry Darger, remains one of my favorite-ever Philly Fringe premieres.)
Perhaps you also recall the real-life story of artist Joe Scanlan, who hired a series of black women (including Philly actor, Pig Iron School grad, and Lightning Rod Special founder Jennifer Kidwell) to play a fictional artist named Donelle Woolford. Similarly, determined to get into that museum show, Gus hires Vanessa (Jaylene Clark Owens), a nice girl -- so nice she changed her name to Vanessa because she adored Vanessa Huxtable -- and talented young actress from his boyfriend Tanner’s (Justin Jain) improv class. She will submit his paintings as Balkonaé Townsend, a woke, spiritual, full-grown woman; Gus will prove a point to curator Jane (Jessica Bedford);hand Vanessa will get to create a character from scratch.
"An exercise in absence"
Just when this road looks like it’s spread out straight before you, it starts to really get interesting. Power and identity are slippery beasts. Cling too much to either, and you risk becoming imprisoned by them; give away too much and you risk losing them altogether.
Does every gay man have a fierce black woman inside him desperate to escape? Does every black woman have a fierce black woman inside her? How much of what we believe is ourselves, particularly if the “self” in question is a member of a minority or marginalized community, might actually be the result of having other people’s expectations and assumptions projected onto us for, what, decades? Generations? Do we control anything? Who is even driving?
Director Malika Oyetimein plays with the shifting balance under each character’s feet, and she’s blessed with a superb cast digging into its roles, ducking and weaving with every emotional punch Ijames throws their way. But Owens gets to truly show off, picking up and dropping personae on a dime until she conjures up some literal black-girl magic.
Occasionally, a joke plays itself out for too long on the same note, but that’s a small quibble with a production that so often hits its mark. Without saying any of it outright, Ijames’s script calls to mind Sarah Baartman; tourists taking selfies in front of Kara Walker’s massive sculpture, A Subtlety; Beyoncé; and other representations of black women in art, media, and life. Or does it? It’s a bit like those white canvases Gus keeps painting: You see what you want to see in them, and maybe sometimes you even see what’s actually there.