WHITE begins with the opening of ‘New America’, a new art exhibition at the Parnell Museum of Contemporary Art. Gus (Levi Mattey), a gay white male artist, is excluded from the exhibition by senior curator Jane (Jess Butcher), who is looking for new voices – not ‘white dudes’. Gus hires Vanessa (Anna Phillips), a black actress, to present his art as the fictional artist ‘Balkonaé Townsend’. The two construct her parodical and stereotyped context – she’s a feminist, lesbian vegan ‘blafrican American’, and painter of self-proclaimed ‘bad bitch expressionism’. Townsend’s persona soon takes on a life of her own, escalating to the play’s dramatic finale.
The satire tackles race, gender, intersectionality, and art, forcing the audience to interrogate how their own everyday assumptions and interactions create restrictive identities. Through Gus, his Asian boyfriend Tanner (Bradley Butler), Vanessa, and Jane, we explore hierarchies of domination, questioning whether any pain or experience can be commonly experienced.
The EUTC’s production at St. Cecilia’s Hall is the UK debut for Philadelphia playwright James Ijames’ play. The music museum is the ideal venue, the audience surrounding the stage to obtain a shared understanding from all four characters’ points of view. The pared-back, white staging and props – only ever moved by Gus – serve as a reminder that the social environment is defined by white narratives, accepted as the default.
Though primarily focussed on race and sexuality, Ijames’ writing extends beyond these issues to consider how we construct our own and others’ identities. Gus claims that the white and gay elements of himself are in a conversation where neither listens to the other. Perhaps the most captivating acting comes from Phillips’ final scene, as she glitches and snaps between the different facets of her own personality.
WHITE also taps into a debate I’ve recently been exploring – whether art can be separated from the artist. As Townsend herself is the ultimate artwork, the piece created by the prejudices and assumptions of her own society, one expects not.
WHITE runs at St. Cecilia’s Hall until 25 March 2019.