By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
If artists of one cultural or racial extraction are being considered above others for inclusion at a museum or at gallery shows, is it ever fair to appropriate that culture or race for the purpose of evening the artistic playing field?
The fact that playwright James Ijames (Fat Ham) could even dream of raising the question is rendered moot when one learns it is loosely based on an actual incident where a White artist hired a Black actress to portray a fictional character who presented his art as hers. This controversy at the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art resulted in the withdrawal in protest of at least one participating group representing underprivileged artists.
The NOLA Project is presenting Ijames’ White in the newly-refurbished Lapis Center of the New Orleans Museum of Art. While they have presented many previous productions in the Great Hall of the museum as well as on the grounds of the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, this is the first production that deals directly with art and is actually set at times in an art museum. A more perfect venue could not be imagined.
In the case of White, the privileged artist in question is Gus (Matt Armato), whose paintings all feature textured canvases of white as a commentary on his own “whiteness.” Gus is gay, but when he is informed by his curator friend Jane Forsyth (Grace Blakeman) in charge of the New America Exhibition of emerging American artists at the Parnell Museum for Contemporary American Art that no matter how good his work is, he cannot be considered because he does not fit the right gender or race profile, he goes down a deep rabbit hole.
The role of Gus is pivotal, but we must understand his motivation is derived from artistic frustration, not overt racism. “If you were Black and female and making the work you’re making…” Jane readily admits to him as he recoils in horror.
Gus feels he is unfairly being given short shrift strictly because of his gender and race. “I’m gay. Doesn’t that count for anything?” he asks of her.
Inclusion in the exhibition at the New American would certainly give his career a much-needed jolt and he begins to fixate on how he could ever bypass that sticky pre-requisite.
Gus elicits from his Black partner, Tanner (Matthew Thompson), the name and phone number of Valerie Thompson (Tenaj Jackson), a Black actress whose skills on stage had impressed him as being able to carry off the ruse of her being a new artist he has mentored.
He explains the plan to her not long afterward at their apartment, which also serves as his studio, and to her credit, she turns him down.
But when her own artistic aspirations are held at bay a few days later, she contacts Gus again and reluctantly agrees to the plan. “I’ll teach you everything,” he assures her. “Every gay man has a black woman crying to get out!”
The two of them invent her back story including a preposterous first name Balconaé. As Valerie Thompson assumes the persona of Balconaé Townsend, she becomes more committed to the role and takes on a drive and purpose not expected of an actress simply playing a role. She is Balconaé and she begins to make demands upon Gus for him to provide better artistic work worthy of her “talent.”
In one particularly dramatic scene, Gus and Tanner are embarking on a night of lovemaking when the matter of Balconaé is revealed. Tanner is aghast. He cannot believe his lover has set into motion a plan that deflects such underlying prejudice and advances Gus’ sense of entitlement because he is gay. Needless to say, the romantic rendezvous goes south.
Gus and Balconaé meet with Jane in the hope she will be so impressed with this unknown artist that she will extend to her an invitation to be included in her New America Exhibition at the Parnell. But Jane is tenatative at first. It is not until Balconaé begins expressing her specific philosophy about her art that Jane begins to warm to her. Much to Tanner’s disgust, Gus’ relief and Balconaé’s delight, the artist is indeed invited to become a part of the new exhibit.
Director Beau Bratcher does an incredible job working with a cast of tremendously talented players. In particular, Jackson, a fierce actor in her own right, carries off three roles: Vanessa Thompson and Balconaé Townsend as well as Gus’ muse, the wild-haired and over-the-top disco queen St. Diana of Detroit, modeled after Diana Ross. Jackson’s St. Diana is an obvious product of Gus’ overactive imagination. She tells him she is always by his side and feels his distress as disco lighting buffets her. “I’ve come to give you guidance and comfort,” she explains.
“Unleash your full potential, my son,” she advises. “Take what’s on the inside and put it on the outside!” Her admonition sets him on the path to concoct his scheme.
Ijames originally wrote the role of Tanner to be an Asian-American. However, when Bratcher was in early development of the piece, he became aware that Ijames had rewritten the role for a Black actor in an earlier production and inquired if this version of White could be used instead. That change sanctioned by the playwright with accompanying changes in dialogue reflects more on the local New Orleans audience and allows them to identify more with Tanner. Thompson plays the role adroitly, pointing out the fallacy of having a fictitious artist assume Gus’ identity and take credit for his own work, but also expressing disappointment and indignation that Gus had schemed to do so in the first place.
Having Tanner played as a Black man also allows him to directly confront Gus and point out the folly of his plot as well as to suggest his actions might be seen by others as racist. Ijames has Tanner use the term “racial tourism” to define Gus’ subterfuge.
It is hard to believe that hijacking another person’s racial identity and gender for the sake of promoting one’s art could ever be seen as appropriate comic material. But Ijames does that and he does it quite cleverly. Balconaé’s self-described “Bad Bitch Expressionism” is hysterical and when her character begins making demands on Gus to improve his art because it’s reflecting badly on her, Ijames has ramped up the comedy enough that we can momentarily forget how desperate and ill-advised Gus’ actions are. We then see how truly monstrous their creation has become.
As a gay Black playwright, Ijames is in a unique position to understand the reasons behind Gus and Vanessa’s invention of Balconaé Townsend and to allow his characters to speak on the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusivity when they are used for the wrong reasons. While it is funny, White does give one an opportunity to consider how programs intended to lift up disadvantaged groups may be occasionally misused by misguided individuals with their own agendas.
White by James Ijames (90 minutes with no intermission) and directed by Beau Bratcher, continues its run at the Lapis Center of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Shows are March 8 – 10, 15 – 16, 19, and 29 – 31. at 7:30 p.m. with meal and drink service at Cafe NOMA located across the hall beginning at 6:00 p.m. For tickets, click here.