(L to R) Jane (Jennifer Ewing) ingratiates herself to up-and-coming "Bad Bitch Expressionism" artist Balkonaé (Shermona Mitchell). Photo by Brett Love.

Of ‘Racial Tourism’ and ‘Enlightened Allies’: Two Plays Dig Into Cultural Commodification

Two strong productions, on now from Theatre22 and Seattle Public Theater, dive into hot topics around race, culture, and appropriation. They’re both comedic, thought-provoking, and very well done.

White, from Theatre22 at 12th Avenue Arts, closes this Saturday; The Thanksgiving Play, at Seattle Public Theater, runs through November 16. 

 

The Thanksgiving Play, by Larissa FastHorse, brings us into an elementary school drama classroom, where a few White and perennially “woke” teachers are busy strategizing. They know they can’t possibly put up a Thanksgiving play celebrating Native American Heritage Month without including any actual Native American voices. Plus, they’ve raked in a bunch of grant money based on statements of inclusion and representation. So they’re bringing in a Native actor from Los Angeles (hired via Skype audition) to lend their school play that much-needed dose of authenticity.

Unfortunately, they haven’t actually written the play, and their assumption that having a real-life Native American person in the room would pretty much write the thing for them doesn’t quite pan out as hoped.

Meanwhile, in White by James Ijames, curator Jane is on the lookout for the faces of “New America” for her gallery exhibition of the same name — as long as they don’t include any White men. Her old friend Gus, meanwhile, is indignant at the exclusion. The way he sees it, hasn’t he, as a gay White man, been just as oppressed? Jane, recalling the catalog of White men they’ve already exhibited, remains unconvinced.

Determined to have his work on display anyway, Gus brings in Vanessa, a Black woman and improv actor, to audition for a mysterious role; and eventually confides that she will play him, the artist, but as herself. Or rather, as a version of herself — one named Balkonaé Townsend — who is wholly created for the part. In short, she’s been hired to give the audience what they want: Difference. Otherness. Blackness, in all its White-perceived exoticism.

Much of the play’s substance lies not only in what happens next (though that’s mighty juicy too), but in the race-fueled interactions — many of them funny, most of them cringe-worthy — that occur between the characters.

Where The Thanksgiving Play largely skims through its many dealings with race, culture, and entitlement with some very pointed humor, White tears right into them. A recurring theme in White‘s often-jarring racial interactions is the question, Who’s the victim? And why?

Gus insists it’s himself, routinely discriminated against — nay, silenced even — because he’s a White man. The sympathies still come out where you’d expect them to (hint: it’s with the Black woman), but it takes an unexpected journey there.

As for Balkonaé, why did she take on the role — of stand-in for an entitled White artist — in the first place? That stems from her own experience feeling silenced. As she puts it, “I want to make a version of me that people can’t ignore.” In being “othered” to the point of exoticism, she finds voice, power, and freedom — to an extent anyway.

The acting by Shermona Mitchell — as Vanessa, Balkonaé, and Gus’s patron saint Diana (Ross) — is divine. And it’s gratifying to see Mitchell in a role that combines her expansive strengths: in full-throttle, over-the-top humor, alongside irony, keen insight, and steely seriousness. The actors surrounding her are strong and well-cast, too. Tyler Rogers (Gus) and Christian Quinto (Tanner, Gus’s Asian boyfriend) have strong chemistry, in both love and war; and Jennifer Ewing’s Jane meshes perfectly with Mitchell’s Balkonaé as they do a strange dance of deception, power, and commodification.

A co-directed play always has potential to fizzle, but here the visions of directors Corey McDaniel and Tayo Talabi come together well on stage. Production elements also serve it well, including a soundtrack I’d like to steal (sound design by Maggie Rogers) and a set that’s perfect in its simplicity (set by Parmida Ziaei and Margaret Toomey). Together, the script and this production are mightily thought-provoking on race and entitlement, and just as likely to bowl you over with comedy as to leave you agape with horror. It’s among the best shows I’ve seen in a while.

Where Whiteness is so unaware of itself in White, in The Thanksgiving Play it’s just the opposite; many of its most cringe-worthy moments come because the characters are so painfully self-aware. Determined not to “take up space” at the expense of marginalized voices, the teachers of course do just that, from over-processing to infighting. The part that gets them in most trouble, though, is their race to make assumptions about what minorities can do for them. Of course, it backfires.

The casting in The Thanksgiving Play is terrific. Zenaida Rose Smith plays Alicia, an actress who radiates beauty and relishes her vapid state. Jonelle Jordan plays Logan, the eager and earnest drama teacher in search of a vegan world and the perfect “woke” play. They’re supported by Martyn G. Krouse as Jaxton (Logan’s boyfriend and co-conspirator), and Andrew Shanks as history teacher Caden.

Kelly Kitchens’ sharp direction brings out the play’s witticism, and gaffes that are at once so absurd and real. It’s satire at its finest.

Both plays deal with Whiteness and cultural appropriation in disparate, brilliant ways, with humor and insight. They’re well worth your time. For hefty, discussion-producing content, start with White; it’s a must-see. The Thanksgiving Play, which runs a bit further into the month, is just the right comically self-aware follow-up.


White runs through 11/9 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill. Tickets $28, available hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with one nearby gender-neutral, single-stall restroom available by key code. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. White plays in repertory with The Revolutionists; discounted two-show festival tickets available.

The Thanksgiving Play runs through 11/16 at Seattle Public Theater at Green Lake. Tickets $39, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all multi-stall and gender-neutral. Theatre is wheelchair accessible. Free rush tickets available to all theatre industry members and TPS members.

For showtimes, visit Calendar page.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.