Identity politics are an inescapable reality of our current social and cultural era, so it only makes sense that our art will reflect the ways of navigating — or failing to navigate — those thorny issues. James Ijames’ play “White” is just such a reflection, one that satirically takes direct aim at the role of identity in art. Permanent Record’s new production of “White,” playing through Dec. 22 at the Mastrogeorge Theatre, is hilarious and energetic, with some witty and nuanced performances whose strength overcomes a somewhat weak ending.
“White” follows visual artist Gus, who becomes frustrated when he is denied a place in a museum’s new show because he is a white man. To try to make the point that he is being discriminated against, he hires an actress to play an undiscovered artist named Balkonaé, whose paintings are really Gus’ work.
The trickiest part of Ijames’ script (and of director Delanté G. Key’s staging of that script) is the way in which it handles Gus, who despite espousing some pretty reprehensible beliefs never fully comes across as villainous. His warmth and wittiness clash with his belief that white men are somehow more discriminated against than other groups, but actor Chad Dike provides him with such a sense of hangdog charm that his obsession with this issue makes him more an object of pity than of scorn. By making Gus’ beliefs so ridiculous, “White” forces audience members to consider just how similarly pathetic are the public figures who voice these beliefs.
“White” is far from an attack on white men, though, and we are certainly meant to identify with Gus, particularly as his own plan gets away from him. This is because Vanessa, the actress he hires to portray Balkonaé, is not just a painting, but a real live person with her own desires. The idea and process behind the creation of art become as much part of the conflict between the two as their differing sense of identity, particularly when Vanessa’s goals conflict with Gus’. Just as Dike’s performance as Gus showcases a conflicted persona with shades both laudable and shameful, Oktavea Williams’ performance as Vanessa/Balkonaé is a deeply nuanced look at the harsh line between self-affirmation and crass exploitation.
Unfortunately, “White” does not have the strongest ending. Rather than further exploring the interesting, conflict-rich situation he has set up, Ijames goes for a bit of a twist ending that seems out of keeping with the tone he had established throughout the rest of the play.
This, though, is no fault of Permanent Records’ production. Keys and his cast infuse the text with a vibrant pace, emphasizing the moments of humor as much as the complex ideas. Despite a shaky landing, “White” is a thought-provoking and laugh-inducing look at a vitally important contemporary issue.