White noise: a combination of frequencies that combine to produce an auditory neutral, a shield against other, more distracting sounds. White noise: a sleep aid. White noise: static, the nagging, inescapable frequency you hear when transmission shuts down. Can you see the line where it shifts from being protective to being intrusive, where it stops being “neutral” and starts feeling like assault?
White noise: “How come people get offended when I ask if I can touch their hair?” White noise: “A second-rate person has my job just because that second-rate person is black.” White noise: the omnipresent thrum of degradation, of violence, of racism. White noise: the way relations of race and power seep into even the most loving, intimate, nominally equal relationships.
The literal kind of white noise runs through Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play: Leo (Daveed Diggs), visual artist and longtime insomniac, is given a white noise machine by his best friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski). It brings him the release of sleep at the expense of his creativity. So he throws away the machine–but he’s still plagued by the static, always in his skull. But everything in this play–every line, every action, every gesture–is encrusted with layers of meaning, and so the play is also, very much, about the impossibility of escaping the droning chorus of the white noise of American history. “I can’t sleep and I have that sound. The sound of the White Noise machine. Even though I threw the machine away.” White male noise, in particular–the relationship between Leo and Ralph is the heart of the play–but Dawn (Zoë Winters) and Misha (Sheria Irving), Leo and Ralph’s respective girlfriends, hardly escape unscathed.
Thirty-something college pals who had a mildly successful band together back in the day, the group has paired off in various combinations over the years. Now, they form two interracial couples: the insomniac artist Leo is black and Dawn, a criminal defense attorney, is white; Ralph, an independently wealthy unpublished novelist and part-time college writing professor, is white and his girlfriend, Misha, hosts a web series called “Ask a Black.”
At the top of the play, everyone seems to be doing okay (though reading between the lines, no one except Dawn is bringing home much of a paycheck; we later learn Leo has about $90,000 in credit card debt and student loans). Leo is planning to propose to Dawn; Ralph is expecting a tenure-track job offer any minute; Dawn has a client she thinks she can actually get acquitted; and Misha’s series seems to be starting to take off. They get together to bowl regularly–Leo and Ralph were on the college bowling team together, and Ralph inherited a chain of bowling alleys from his otherwise-absent father, so they can go whenever they want.
Sure, there are a few throwaway suggestions that maybe everything isn’t as sunny among the four of them as it seems–Dawn and Leo don’t really watch Misha’s show, though they claim to; they also don’t really think Ralph deserves tenure. Ralph and Misha are a little worried about Leo, but also a little weary of his problems.
And then two things happen, one to Leo and one to Ralph, that ripple the surface–and once the ripples start, their unquestioned assumptions about one another, their uninterrogated affections, their shared relationships and their individual histories start to crash up against the weight of American history: racial, economic, mythological, psychological.
When Leo can’t sleep, he walks. One night, instead of walking around the block, he decides to walk to the neighborhood he’d love to live in someday–and he’s accosted by cops: not arrested, but roughed up pretty badly (worse, it seems, than he’ll admit). And he genuinely thought he was going to be shot. In the wake of the assault, he proposes to Dawn, who rebuffs the entire discussion.
Meanwhile, Ralph doesn’t get his tenure-track job; it goes instead to a published Sri Lankan poet who Ralph thinks got the job only because he identifies as black–a position Misha will not abide. Ralph and Misha don’t tell Leo and Dawn about the job for some time, but the two very different crises spur everything else that happens. They shake both men’s senses of how they belong in the world, in very different ways: Ralph–never published, never loved by his father, raised poor and never quite feeling good enough despite all the power he’s gained by coming into serious money–feels betrayed by losing out when he thought he’d finally get the prize. Leo–who was on the brink of serious artistic success when he lost his creative inspiration–feels not only like his deepest fears about the world have been realized, but ashamed, like maybe that treatment was his due all along.
Leo has a crazy idea about how to clear the slate for himself–how to feel safe again, how to reboot his relationship to his own mind and his own country. There’s no way to really get at the meat of the play without spoiling this plot twist, so here it is (spoiler alert): he wants to contract to be Ralph’s slave for a period of 40 days, to be under the aegis of a rich white man’s protection, even at the cost of self-sovereignty. Both the women–and Ralph, at first–are horrified, but it’s hard to say no to a friend begging for your help, even when the thing he’s begging for is sickening. Yet underneath, there’s something that appeals darkly to both men (and even, when she keeps poking at it like a sore tooth, Misha): a bonding ritual based on a private secret, a deep psychic game, a ritual that Leo thinks will act as a crucible and burn away his modern trauma under the weight of history. It goes wrong, of course, in both the ways you might expect, and ways that are so much worse. And, in perhaps the most terrible irony, it also works: Leo starts drawing again. Misha’s show takes off. Dawn ends up with a better job. Ralph gets published in The New Yorker. They’re arguably more “successful,” but also ruined, by the end.
In Vox’s review of Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play (an inevitable comparison point here), the critic notes that “For the white characters, race is something to be denied and ignored; for the black characters, race is a historical trauma that is profoundly embedded in their psyches.” For Parks, that’s one side of it–but the other side is that even in that denial and ignorance, the white characters have race embedded too. Race may become something to be called out by the white characters when it serves their purpose–when Ralph is feeling aggrieved; when Dawn wants to prove her commitment to the cause–but it’s never not there. The black characters are more conscious of navigating it moment by moment, of the weight of it–Leo thinks submitting to the pressure will set him free; Misha uses her show to make that conversation explicit–but there’s no possibility of getting out, for anyone.
There is so much going on: the play is three hours long, and almost every line is layered with meaning on both the specific, character/relationship level and a broader level, saying something more about history both personal and American, both individual and racial. Parks’s gift (helped by Oskar Eustis’s patience and clarity as a director, which lets every line be heard, and excellent performances) is to fill her language with that duality; sentences and even monologues that should by all rights be be painful, didactic exposition instead slowly, seethingly click together. (Yeah, there’s the occasional spot where one layer too many tips the scale of a moment, but surprisingly few.) The production is simple–the major element in Clint Ramos’s set is an extremely clever bowling-alley setup that allows the characters to actually bowl out one of the exits and have the balls come back in a “return” (another metaphor, of course, for the inescapability of the binds they’re in).
Diggs and Sadoski are both revelatory: men who love each other, or think they do, but whose inchoate, uncomprehended struggles with the nature of power and with their own psychic wounds lead them into a terrible standoff. The genuine, easy affection between them, the seemingly happy history, makes it all the more wrenching when you see how easy that is to destroy; how quickly racist power corrupts—and how simple it is to be complicit with power relations, from both sides. (Ralph’s villainy does become a little cartoonish at the end, but Sadoski stays with the character the whole way down.) Diggs, especially, also brings a lightness and a hopefulness that cut through any tendency to the didactic (and of course, makes it even harder to see his dignity and his optimism start to slip away). The play is bookended by their “solos”–Leo’s long monologue about his upbringing and his insomnia opens the play, and Ralph’s about his present state of mind comes on day 39 of the “experiment.”
If Ralph and Leo are engaged in pitched battle with the world and eventually each other, Misha and Dawn are battling fractures within themselves (and, also, eventually each other; they’ve had an on-the-side sexual relationship for some time). They too get solos: Dawn internally debates whether do-gooderism is nothing more than self-aggrandizement. Misha negotiates with her own black identity as she code-switches from the way she was raised (by a black lesbian couple of professors in a mostly-white college town) to the “street” character she plays on “Ask a Black.” Winters and Irving are strong as well, doing subtler work with subtler characters. Irving has a lot of fun–but again, deeper than just fun–with Misha’s “Ask a Black” character, trying to do real good work from within this stereotyped persona. Dawn is the play’s weakest link, character-wise, and perhaps the least honest with herself. She trades on her sexuality and the erotic sway she holds over the other three.
The play is about so many things: America’s inability to really have a honest assessment of its racial history, of course, but also about what we inherit from our families and our forebears, about the negotiations of power in every relationship, and the seductiveness of being offered a power you don’t want—and the monstrousness of the power you secretly think you deserve. It’s about the way money always, in America, interweaves with other forms of power. It’s about entitlement and friendship, and how much our emotional bonds are sometimes built on denying hard truths. It’s about the desperate search to offload a responsibility you can’t bear but doing it in the worst possible way. It’s about appropriation, and the line between admiration, homage, and outright theft. It’s about the way personal betrayals can’t possibly escape being tied to cultural and historical ones, and the clash between the people society has shaped us to be and the people we want to believe we are.
Parks’s script opens with a James Baldwin quote: “Not everything can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” White Noise is, ultimately, about facing what is: no resolution, not even a lot of hope, a great deal of bitter irony and grief–but the possibility of change.