There have been two occasions where I was nervous about the runtime of a show, last year with Angels in America, and today with White Noise. On both occasions I was presented with deep, dark, and moving productions.
The play starts with a monologue by Leo, a black man, played by Daveed Diggs, about his insomnia, his friends, and the ever present white noise he hears in his head. He talks very little about race, although it becomes obvious that's the focal point of the play when he suffers from police brutality.
Shortly after, we're introduced to the rest of our cast: Misha, the black woman played by Sheria Irving; Ralph, the white man, played by Thomas Sadoski; and Dawn, the white woman, played by Zoe Winters.
Act 1 gives us a thorough snapshot of these characters lives before the contract; it creates such a compelling story that we're ready to believe anything that happens next.
Michael Rossmy and Kelsey Rainwater, the two intimacy directors, use the first act to show us how close all these characters are. We feel individual connections between each pair of them and we believe they're the best of friends.
Before I move on, it's impossible to discuss Act 2 without major spoilers, so here's your warning.
Act 1 ends with Leo asking his white friend, Ralph, to buy him. Leo is convinced that black men were better off under slavery. He believes that by being a white man's property, he's protected from the police by his owner. They agree to a 40 day experiment.
This scene somehow manages to convince Ralph, and even the audience that this is a good idea. Ralph is so reluctant, and he's such good friends with Leo, that it appears he's the one doing Leo a favor. We have no idea what we're in for in the next act.
The second act begins almost comically. Leo is up early and shining shoes. Ralph is making jokes about his newfound authority.
Throughout the second act we're shown Leo in increasingly dehumanizing situations. This happens so slowly, and so delicately, that we accept each scene as it's happening. It reminds me of the quote "The Holocaust didn't begin with gas chambers." Dehumanization is the process of allowing increasingly unforgivable things to happen.
We're also shown the corollary, that cruelty isn't a switch that's flipped, it's something that festers. In the beginning Ralph is a good, but flawed man. When he takes away Leo's cell phone we think that harsh but fits the situation. When Ralph puts a slave collar around Leo's neck, he's unrecognizable from the character we met initially.
Suzan-Lori Parks does a beautiful job developing her characters with her writing. Each scene is either a monologue, a pairing of two characters, or the four of them together.
We get a full picture of how each character behaves in every situation, when they're alone, when their with each of the others, and in the group. We get to hear them talking about each other and sharing their own stories. It's such a thorough way to give us a peak into all of their heads.
While this show seems insane on the surface, Oskar Eustis's direction makes it believable. Everything is handled so carefully that we don't notice the slippery slope until things are far too late.
I can't recommend this show enough, and I hope to see it live a life after the Public.