Through Jun. 9

The Fruit, Durham

White could so easily have been a one-sided satire of relatively easy prey: a white male who behaves badly when his art is excluded from a major exhibition. But in the sharp-toothed production closing Bulldog Ensemble Theater’s notable first season, North Carolina native James Ijames’s 2018 drama ventures beyond the facile bashing of a strawman. By its chilly ending, with a final twist that seems lifted from Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone reboot, a play initially framed as a sitcom becomes a merciless interrogation of privilege, power dynamics, and racial exploitation in the curatorial relationships that structure high art in the United States.

At the outset, Gus (Jordan Clifton), a young gay painter with a penchant for minimalist white works on canvas, learns that he isn’t eligible for a major museum exhibition because it won’t include any work by white men, who already make up most of the museum’s holdings. When its curator, his old friend Jane (an over-the-top A.C. Donohue), bluntly tells him, “If you were black and female … it would be perfect,” Gus takes the unintended hint to an extreme: He hires an African-American actor, Vanessa (Monèt Noelle Marshall), to develop and perform a fictitious artistic persona. Then, he submits his work under her name.

But what begins as an obvious takedown of a “reverse racism” protest takes on deeper, multiple dimensions. Ijames and director JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell probe the long-term elements and consequences of gay cultural appropriation—or “racial tourism,” as Vanessa calls it—of African-American folkways: “It’s like, ‘Let me play double-dutch with the black girls on the playground ‘cause they make me feel all empowered and fierce … but without the burden of actually being a black girl.’”

But despite their differences (and Gus’s clear cluelessness), the pair crafts a mercurial character named Balkonaé, who quickly takes on a life of her own, threatening to overwhelm them both even before her supposed artwork is accepted.

The Triangle has also struggled with the issues Ijames raises in his work. Marshall’s authoritative performances as Vanessa and Balkonaé echo the pointed questions she has posed over the past year about how African-American artists and their work are valued, in her incisive “Buy It/Call It” performance trilogy. 

But when Jane plans to permanently acquire all that Gus and Vanessa have created, White also brings into question the distance between a culture’s curators, its jailers, and the impresarios who once placed the likes of Sara Baartman on display for paying audiences. Step right up?

Comment on this story at arts@indyweek.com. 

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One reply on ““White” Is a Complex, Locally Relevant Study of Cultural Appropriation in the Arts”

  1. Jeff Talbott’s play, _The Submission_, which was produced in Asheville a couple of years ago. That play deals with a white male playwright who hires a black, female actor to play the fictitious author of his play when he submits it to a competition. It’s in the zeitgeist, I guess!

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