White Noise
RJ Brown (front) with Tatiana Williams, Katie Kleiger, and Quinn Franzen in White Noise; Credit: Margot Schulman

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The program for Studio Theatre’s production of White Noise aptly sets the tone for the two and half hours awaiting audiences in the tightly packed playhouse. Studio’s artistic director David Muse writes in the welcoming: “Suzan-Lori [Parks] has long used theatre to provoke rather than to comfort, and this play is no exception.”

To call White Noise provocative is to undersell it. To give it a trigger warning might be to underscore it. White Noise is certainly the type of play that takes time to process. As Muse goes on to note, it’s a big ask for art-starved, social-life-longing, and good-news-needing audiences. “But there are things going on in our country and in our lives that demand attention, and artists like Suzan-Lori are inviting us into discomfort, in the name of honesty, self-awareness, and, ultimately, healing,” Muse concludes. 

The play opens in a messy bedroom with Leo monologuing about growing up as an urban Black boy with insomnia. Today, he’s a college graduate, gun-shooting artist living in an even bigger city. He still suffers from insomnia. Played by RJ Brown, Leo artfully sells the lost and hopeful 20-something mindset and lifestyle. He’s brimming with the invincibility that bookends a quarter-life crisis. 

His friends, a tight four-person group, carry the same bright-eyed hope. Misha (Tatiana Williams), who is also Black, is now dating trust-funded, “righteous Ralph” (Quinn Franzen), who’s White. Dawn (Katie Kleiger), also White, is dating Leo, but she and Ralph dated in college, as did Misha and Leo. It’s a post-Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, George Floyd world (though none are mentioned), and these young adults, with much to prove, are “woke.”

Of course, life isn’t that simple and neither are people. A horrible incident throws the friends and lovers into a new world that’s too reminiscent of ours to be satire. 

While the play takes place in various settings—Leo and Dawn’s bedroom, Ralph’s living room, Misha’s parents’ house—the only place they gather as a group is a local shooting range. The errant hang-out spot is a place for the friends to let off steam while building tension for the audience—there’s nothing like the perpetual sound of gunshots, fired into the seating area, to keep you engaged with what’s happening on stage. (It’s especially jarring after a cinematographer was killed on a movie set in October by a live round from a prop gun.) 

When the play originally premiered in 2019, the group’s hangout was a bowling alley, but according to a Studio Theatre press release, Parks has been contemplating the locale change ever since. The release notes that the playwright believes 2021 audiences “will be ready to engage in a more direct conversation about racism, freedom, and violence.” Parks is quoted: “Everyone is pushed in the play. To take a good look at their shit and figure out a way to work through it.”

Over the course of nearly three hours, Parks examines the interaction of race and gender as each character has a specific response to the play’s events. The resulting conflicts are typical “male” and “female” responses: The girls get in a fight over wine and subtle racism, while the guys laugh, high five, and brush aside the tensions until the joke has gone entirely too far and the racism becomes overt. Leo and Misha—and Dawn and Ralph—are interesting and opposite foils to one another, but (aside from Dawn) are they all too exaggerated to relate to?

Without offering spoilers, Parks’ play, directed by Reginald L. Douglas (now Mosaic Theater Company’s artistic director), raises a bevy of questions.From the benign: The foursome is supposed to be in their 30s, but they feel younger, rawer—like 20-something millennials (even if millennials are no longer in their 20s). To the more pressing: Who is the intended audience for White Noise? And what effect does playing these characters have on the actors? 

Certainly, White Noise offers a rebuttal to anyone who parrots the belief that “slavery was so long ago,” and its explosive ending pulls you to the edge of your seat. The point, it seems, of the play isn’t to walk out of the theater with answers, but questions.

It’s unclear if anyone figures out a way to work through these questions. Despite being extreme in its decision-making, the play should cause audiences, especially White audiences, to feel deeply uncomfortable—not unrelatable. Though White Noise pushes beyond micro- and macro-aggressions, I urge audience members to not use its over-the-topness as an excuse to write off the uncomfortable thoughts and images. Instead of insisting “I would never!,” White Noise ought to inspire audiences to sit with the many feelings, no matter how unsettling, as they arise. 

White Noise, directed by Reginald L. Douglas and written by Suzan-Lori Parks, plays at Studio Theatre through Feb. 20. studiotheatre.org. $50–$95.