For many, the experience of the last two years has often felt like living through an arch political satire. So whatever laughter audiences experience in playwright/director Ian Allen’s How to Win a Race War, currently presented by The Klunch at the DC Arts Center, is a recognition of the daily horror of what should never be normal in a democratic society.
When the audience first enters the theater, they see three small tables of books with the sign “White Nationalist Writings (Please Touch, Read, But Don’t Steal)”— the books are not tracts but action thrillers and science-fiction with explicitly racist and anti-Semitic premises and poorly designed covers. Once the books are removed, a white man (Ned Read) enters, explaining that the members of his company are not actors, just an amateur group of nationalists out to educate a “mainstream white audience” about the literature that can be found online or at gun shows. (Contrast them with the conspicuously not-racist, not-anti-Semitic gun-toting survivalists in Anne Washburn’s much-lauded Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.)
Allen’s conceit of using an all-white-male acting troupe (11 actors on stage and two additional voice actors) with female roles often played by scruffy, bearded men (there are women and people of color on the production side) is not done just to maintain the illusion of a racist theater company, but to underline the white nationalists’ alternating fear and titillation at sexual and political impotence; the grotesque portrayals of sexual assault (using ridiculously rubbery dildos) is about racist literature’s pornographic fetishization of rape and miscegenation as the Southern plantation romance of the first act gives way to a slave rebellion. Even the anti-Semitism presented is as much about the fear of circumcision and the circumcised as it is about conspiracy theories about Jews secretly controlling the government, or the notion that the Exodus story is designed to inspire non-white people to rebel against the white race.
After the first of two intermissions in this three-hour-and-twenty-minute epic, the action moves to an industrial loft in the Boston neighborhood once known, pre-gentrification, as “The Combat Zone.” (Speaking as a former Bostonian, Boston’s theater scene is too genteel for a play like this.) A racist militia cell is inspired by the Oklahoma City bombing to start the race war they’ve been rehearsing for. When the story picks up again six months later, America’s white resistance is being hunted by President Janet Reno and a National Guard made up of Jews, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans. Breakfast at camp is huevos rancheros, black-eyed peas, and latkes.
The final act is a 22nd-century space opera set in a wormhole-ridden solar system in which most of humanity lives under a politically correct dystopia. Miscegenation is enforced by law and the remaining white people are referred to by the slur “cauc”—a near homophone with the alt-right epithet “cuck.” All hope relies on the two white teenagers predictably named Adam Junior (Connor Padilla, a fine singer) and Evie (a hirsute Grant Collins).
The props by William Spencer deliberately underline the conceit of amateurism, as they are made of corrugated cardboard cutouts, craft paper, and duct tape. The costumes by Mei Chen mostly consist of wigs and random articles of thrift store detritus thrown over unstylish street clothing. The only polished aspect of the design is Anderson Wells’ music direction—a particular standout is a number built around The Beatles’ “Revolution,” an allusion to Charles Manson’s teaching that the band’s self-titled album was a coded prophecy for a race war.
How to Win a Race War will be divisive. Some will question whether parodying the fantasies of white supremacists just further promotes their ideas. Some will fault Allen and The Klunch for presenting stories in which the racists are never confronted with the humanity of the people they obsess over. How to Win a Race War is an ugly piece of provocation, but if you wondered what animated those who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” or how internet trolls can insist that casting decisions in the latest Star Wars films represent a “white genocide,” Ian Allen invites you to peer into their collective psyche.
To Oct. 20 at 2438 18th St. NW. $25–$85. theklunch.com.