It may be a new year, but the same old divisions of race and class continue to plague American society. Hoping to shed some light on the guilt and prejudices of the more privileged sector, J.T. Rogers' drama, White People looks at three seemingly typical white Americans, their views, their secrets, and their confessions.
A 1998-99 Best Play nominee by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, White People received a workshop staging at L.A.'s Road Theatre Company. The drama opened its first full, non-profit production Jan. 26 at PA's Philadelphia Theatre Company. Performances began Jan. 21 for a run ending this weekend, Feb. 20. Gus Reyes directs the piece.
Philip Anglim (a Tony nominee The Elephant Man) was to star, but he left the production early on, citing a medical condition with his throat. He was replaced by John Ottavino, who had a small role in the 1997 Broadway mounting of A Doll's House, with Janet McTeer and Owen Teale.
Co-starring with Ottavino are Carole Healey and Robert Sean Leonard. The latter has appeared on the New York stage in Candida, You Never Can Tell and last season's celebrated revival of The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey.
The three characters of White People are a cheerleader-turned housewife, a conservative lawyer and a liberal college professor (Sean Leonard). PTC producing artistic director Sara Garonzik said in a statement that the play looks at "the underlying racial tensions within our multi-cultural society." Company spokesperson Deborah Fleischman told Playbill On-Line the drama isn't so much controversial as thought provoking. "These issues are in everybody's psyche," she said. "Not to be too negative, but it churns your gut... it's incredibly powerful... These are just normal, everyday people. For example, this lawyer moved to St. Louis to find a safe place, but his son beats up a black couple in the park, and he's bewildered about where that rage came from. The cheerleader's husband can't hold down a job, and her son has encephalitis. Now his care is in hands of an Indian doctor. The professor is a very liberal American history professor whose pregnant wife is beaten up by two black men in the park for no reason. At the same time, he has two outstanding black students in his class, and he's trying to reconcile his feelings."
Fleischman added that, though darkly-themed, "the show has "a very hopeful ending. We focus on that hope in our post-show symposia." (Among them: a Jan. 23 symposium, "American Apartheid," featuring professors from Bryn Mawr and University of Pennsylvania, and a Jan. 30 conference, "Living Together: Streets of Prejudice," featuring spokespersons from the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council.
Designing the drama are Michael McGarty (set), Tom Broecker (costumes), Phil Monat (lighting; he's also doing the upcoming Finian's Rainbow) and Eileen Tague (sound).
Asked about the audience reaction to White People, producing artistic director Garonzik told Playbill On-Line (Feb. 15), "Response has been incredible. We've had full houses, with basically everyone staying for our post-show discussions." (The show cannot extend, since PTC rents its space at the Plays & Players Theatre.)
"We specialize in American writers," Garonzik added, "and we especially like plays that are about something substantial and engage a public conversation." Garonzik noted that while Bunny, Bunny and Master Class both started at PTC and journeyed on to New York (where Terrence McNally's play won the Tony), White People marked the first time the New York Times sent a reviewer to a PTC production. (First string critic Ben Brantley gave the play a generally positive notice.) "He recognized it as a significant play," Garonzik said of the Times scribe, "and he treated it as such."
Finishing up the PTC season will be the Pulitzer-winning Wit and Tony-winning Side Man. Next season -- the company's 25th Anniversary -- has yet to be chosen from "hundreds of scripts currently being read."
For tickets and information on Philadelphia Theatre Company's White People at the Plays & Players Theatre call (215) 568-1920.
-- By David Lefkowitz