All plays have a theme. Some have more than one and in the case of Suzan-Lori Parks’ play White Noise which has recently opened at the Bridge Theatre there are multiple layered themes all vying for attention.
The play centres around four friends: Ralph (James Corrigan), Misha (Faith Omole), Leo (Ken Nwosu) and Dawn (Helena Wilson). They met at college and became inseparable. In fact, they became couples, Ralph and Dawn & Leo and Misha. Nowadays, they are still friends, still couples – though the pairings have changed to Ralph and Misha and Leo and Dawn – and have their own careers. Ralph, thanks to a wealthy and not very dear departed father, owns a successful shooting range, and is a university professor on the brink of tenure, Misha is presenting her own online show ‘Ask a Black’ and Dawn is a lawyer. Leo is a talented visual artist but, thanks to a misguided Sunday School teacher, has problems with sleeping. Well, that’s putting it mildly. Leo is an insomniac who often walks the streets in the early hours. This is not normally an issue but on one particular walk, Leo is stopped by the police and pushed to the floor. When she hears of the incident – which was definitely racially motivated – Dawn wants him to make a formal complaint and/or sue the police. But Leo has been shaken by the whole event and decides to do something much more radical. He gets a lawyer to draw up a contract to make him the property of Ralph, and under his master’s protection. For 40 days and 40 nights, Ralph will be a slave owner and Leo will be a chattel constantly at the beck and call of his master.
White Noise is a powerful play. Over the course of just under 3 hours, it tackles a fair amount of subjects: relationships, friendship, wokeness, heritage and morality to name but four. The story is multi-layered, and thanks to each of them getting a monologue, all four of the characters are so much more complicated than they appear at first sight. On the surface, they are a group of liberal lefty PC types who say the right things at all times. In reality, they probably believe the majority of the things they say but lurking beneath the surface there are ripples of discontent with their lives and the way they are expected to behave and act. All of the characters are nicely written and, in many ways, believable – even if it is stretching the limits to imagine either that Leo would come up with the slavery idea or that Ralph would agree to take part. And this brings up another major issue for me. The 13th amendment of the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, something that you would think everybody would know. Therefore, the contract between Leo and Ralph, which had been drafted by a lawyer, was not lawful – something you would have expected Dawn to pick up at the very least.
However, taking that aside, the writing is on the whole very good. The play is really compelling, and I was hooked on it from Leo’s opening monologue through to the end. Considering the subject matter, there is a lot of humour, and the audience broke out into chuckles quite a few times. There were also some shocking moments and, as they say, some rather adult-themed parts. For me, and I think for most of the audience, the most shocking was when Ralph got Leo to wear a punishment collar. This scene was superbly portrayed by the two actors and made fascinating use of Lizzie Clachlan’s superb set. Full credit to Director Polly Findlay for producing a scene that was so uncomfortable to watch but from which I couldn’t drag my eyes, and which I can still picture in my mind now.
All four actors worked really well – with amazingly authentic American accents – and I really take my hat off to them for being able to bring such multi-faceted and layered characters out from the writing. The relationship between Nwosu and Corrigan as Leo and Ralph respectively, was particularly fascinating as they veered from “Bros” to “Master & Slave” not only in the same scene but sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
Overall, White Noise really is a fascinating play. Whilst it raised many mental conundrums that it didn’t necessarily address entirely to my satisfaction, it was still a gripping piece of theatre that certainly provided a lot of food for thought.
Review by Terry Eastham
Thirty-somethings Leo, Misha, Ralph and Dawn have been inseparable since college. Making their way together in the big city, they are liberal, open-minded and socially aware. Misha is producing the hit online show ‘Ask A Black’; Ralph is waiting for tenure at his university, and as a lawyer, Dawn spends her days fighting for social justice. Leo would be a talented visual artist – if only he could sleep. As best friends and lovers, confident in their woke-ness, their connection with each other is stronger than anything else – until, that is, Leo is assaulted by the police in a racially motivated incident. Shaken to the core, he brings to the group an extreme proposition. White Noise takes an unflinching look at race in the 21st century from both a black and white perspective.
RALPH – James Corrigan
LEO – Ken Nwosu
MISHA – Faith Omole
DAWN – Helena Wilson
WRITER – Suzan-Lori Parks
DIRECTOR – Polly Findlay
SET DESIGNER – Lizzie Clachan
COSTUME DESIGNER – Natalie Pryce
MOVEMENT DIRECTOR – Jade Hackett
LIGHTING DESIGNER – Jackie Shemesh
SOUND DESIGNER – Donato Wharton
INTIMACY COORDINATOR – David Thackeray
MUSICAL DIRECTOR – Marc Tritschler
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – John Rwothomack
PROPS SUPERVISOR – Lily Mollgaard
CASTING DIRECTOR – Amy Ball
CREATIVE CONSULTANT – Mandy Hackett
DRAMATURG – Jesse Cameron Alick
COSTUME SUPERVISOR – Zoe Hammond
PRODUCTION MANAGER – Marty Moore
DIALECT AND VOICE – Hazel Holder
DIALECT AND VOICE – Eleanor Manners
Bridge Theatre, 3 Potters Fields Park, London, SE1 2SG