Theater Review: ‘White Noise’ at the Studio Theater

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Left to right: Tatiana Williams (Misha), Quinn Franzen (Ralph), RJ Brown (Leo) and Katie Kleiger (Dawn). Photo by Margot Schulman.

“White Noise” is not an easy track. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks takes America’s dark history and presents it in searing drama that forces four people to confront very deep truths about themselves and each other and how deeply that history is embedded in their DNA – and how to face these realities will change them forever.

…this cast of actors brilliantly exploits everything Parks strives to do in his moral play on the dark underpinnings of American social experience. It’s a very good reason to see it.

Take four college friends – Leo (RJ Brown), a black artist who is somehow on the verge of a breakthrough; Dawn (Katie Kleiger), a white lawyer who fights against injustice in the system; Misha (Tatiana Williams), a black podcaster who hosts a show called “Ask a Black”; and Ralph (Quinn Franzen), an associate professor from a white legacy trust fund on the way to tenure. In college, the four dated and formed a band, but now they’re in their early thirties and looking to break into America’s capitalist system – and they hope to live up to their woke ideals while they’re doing it.

The story arc revolves around forty days in their lives. Leo is an insomniac and when he can’t sleep he likes to walk around the city at night. During one of these nights, he was racially profiled and brutalized by police officers. Bruised and shaken, he comes home and Dawn immediately considers filing a complaint. Meanwhile across town, Misha starts his show and Ralph confesses that he didn’t make it. He lost it to another candidate who has published more and who is not white.

From there, the story spirals through dark and sharp places. When the four meet for their weekly practice at Ralph’s shooting range, the conversation is quick and brilliant, but there’s an upside. Later, Leo offers Ralph a deal and a contract to become Ralph’s slave for 40 days. He will accept the yoke in exchange for being under the protection of a white man. While Ralph initially objects, he agrees. Dawn and Misha are horrified and Misha temporarily moves in with Dawn to continue her podcast.

At first, Leo and Ralph treat this contract almost like a lark. But then Ralph buys an old iron punishment collar and orders Leo to put it on and stand on the coffee table. Leo expects Ralph to pull it off, but Ralph goes to another room and begins working on a story for publication, leaving Leo in limbo. It’s one of the most gruesome images in the play.

Act 2 brings to light other buried truths. White supremacy rises as Ralph is invited to join a “white club” by his department head who saw Leo on the street wearing a shirt with a homemade sign on the back proclaiming him Ralph’s property. It also stands in Dawn as she tries to fix or save Misha, just like she did with Leo. Misha resists and Dawn can’t – or won’t – see his actions for what they are. There is more cultural appropriation and there is sexual betrayal and threats of violence. The only one who seems satisfied with this social experiment is Ralph – he has found his own.

Parks clearly makes his point. How do you change a system that favors one side so blatantly and insidiously at the same time? How does a society recognize its dark beginnings, try to atone, and move toward true inclusion and understanding of a common humanity? Is it even possible? The brutality in this play is primarily psychological and emotional, and it is brutal. One thing the audience has to do is let go of logic. The whole concept of such a contract – and the fact that Leo managed to get a lawyer to draft a lawyer (from Dawn’s firm, no less) – is a huge hole. We must therefore accept this deus ex machina and go from there.

These are the four actors who make this so believable and invest us in their journey. They look great, although as archetypes they aren’t particularly fleshed out in the storyline. They each bring nuances to their characters that complement them. Franzen as Ralph, in particular, gives a performance that makes us uncomfortable from the get-go. He finds the void in his character. As for Brown (as Leo), he makes it entirely believable that a black man in his thirties could suddenly become aware of the fragility of his anchorage in society. Police brutality shakes his view of himself and his place and he goes deeper to find its foundation. Even though it looks like Brown is going temporarily crazy with the slave contract, it’s almost like he’s using it as an electric shock to wake himself up.

Kleiger (Dawn) gives a more subtle performance than it first appears. There’s a subliminal panic when she realizes she can’t fix something, that she’s not the total savior. You can almost see her suppressing any idea that might threaten her view of the world and her view of herself. In Williams (Misha), there seems to be a deeper anger than she lets on. In scathing conversation, she recounts how she racks up the expected blackness that her mostly white audience crave as they ask her questions. She uses them to make a place for herself in the world.

Set designer Alexander Woodward creates a rotating set of the three sets – Leo and Dawn’s pokey studio; Ralph and Misha’s more upscale living room (though the furnishings are only one step from a college dorm); and the shooting club. The hub works well at pivotal moments, especially when Ralph is left standing on the table wearing the heavy collar. Alberto Segarra designed the lighting and Fan Zhang the sound. Chelsea Pace is the choreographer of intimacy and combat, and she choreographs a drunken sex scene that’s the opposite of itchy – it underscores the emptiness of both characters. Dominique Fawn Hill perfectly captures the hearts of the characters in his costume designs, especially Ralph, as he rejects any truth that might cause him to confront his weakness.

Director Reginald L. Douglas does an outstanding job of disentangling the nuances of the characters and keeping the tension going until the end.

“White Noise” isn’t subtle, but this cast brilliantly exploits everything Parks strives to do in his moral play on the dark underpinnings of American social experience. It’s a very good reason to see it.

Duration: 2h30 with a 15 minute intermission.

Show Advisory: for an adult audience only. Contains a sex scene, drunkenness and adult language, the use of herbal tobacco, flashing lights and multiple gunshot sound effects.

“White Noise” runs through February 20, 2022 at the Studio Theater, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. For more information and tickets, please call the box office at 202.332.3300 or click here. Proof of vaccination and masks are required. For more information on health and safety protocols, click here.

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