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White Noise

Suzan-Lori Parks

(Bridge Theatre, London, October -November 2021)

Review by Kirsty Pope


Extraordinary is such an overused term but it describes White Noise accurately. It’s a play I had to see twice, to properly marshal my thoughts. And then, to be sure, I bought the script.

Leo is an insomniac. He also tells us, in the long opening monologue, that he has a sport – shooting – and an occupation, as an artist. At this moment, though, despite previous success, he is a blocked artist. He shares a passion for the sport – target practice in an urban shooting range resembling a private members’ club – with his girlfriend, Dawn, a white lawyer with a liberal bent, and his friends: Ralph, a white professor, and his African American girlfriend, Misha, a podcast host. Friends since college, they’re sharing the journey of all middle-class thirty-somethings, through career progression and the associated anxieties. 

But this morning, in the early hours, while on an insomnia-induced walk, Leo, an African-American, was assaulted by the police. And now he has a proposal for his white friend, Ralph. He wants, for forty days, to become his slave. Slaves, he explains, were always protected from being assaulted by strangers, due to their property status. Perhaps in short-term shock, or the throes of a longer-term nervous breakdown, Leo wants to feel safe again. 

In the hands of a lesser writer it might be hard to trust in this central premise and it would be tempting to see it as an attention-seeking provocation. But Suzan-Lori Parks is an exceptional writer, with public praise from James Baldwin, under whom she studied, and a Pulitzer Prize to prove it. 

Ralph is not keen on the proposal, but Leo persists and so the experiment begins. Leo must perform domestic tasks for Ralph, living with him, without autonomy. Misha and Dawn thoroughly disapprove but Leo is thrilled. That is, until the power begins to give Ralph ideas, particularly as he feels himself to have been passed over for tenure in his job because of positive discrimination. He begins to embrace his new role and develops some shady new friends. The quartet’s lives spiral downwards. Misha’s ‘Ask a Black’ call-in increasingly feels like an unhappy performance. The unravelling leads to a slightly predictable showdown, but this play is as much about the journey as the destination.

Could someone think of suggesting becoming a slave? Could someone else agree? Or, if this isn’t naturalistic, what is being said? 

In many ways, as the play unfolds, as you have a chance to digest its proposition, it’s perhaps surprising that it’s controversial at all. If, as we know, people are killed for being black while in police custody, or selling cigarettes, or jogging or driving back from the grocery store. Or for being black while at home, unarmed, during a police raid, or babysitting with the door slightly ajar. If we know this extraordinary set of facts, it’s possible that the profundity of that knowledge might produce an equally profound response. 

Or perhaps, to take one step further, the debates about race and attitudes to it are like threads so deeply entangled that only something absurd can begin to deal with the mess in a meaningful way. Increasingly, Samuel Beckett came to mind. If he sought to explore the human condition in bleakly humorous and profound ways, White Noise is exploring the human condition while being black using the same methods.

Amidst all of the twenty-first-century demonstrations, convocations, conversations, cancellations, jibes, assertions, insults and assaults, what does it mean to be black now?

White Noise was directed by Polly Findlay and the script is available to order. I bet you read it more than once.