White Chocolate

Reg E. Cathey and Lynn Whitfield in White Chocolate
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Reg E. Cathey and Lynn Whitfield
in White Chocolate
(Photo © Richard Termine)

Crafting a farce on racial identity is a dangerous prospect. White Chocolate, written by New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton, treads the fine line between tasteless and inspired, but the author’s flair for comic writing and an incredibly game cast help to make the play a success.

The production begins in darkness as upper-class white couple Brandon Beale (Reg E. Cathey) and Deborah Beale (Lynn Whitfield) lie in bed worrying over whether or not Brandon will be appointed the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Whitfield’s Deborah speaks with a rather stereotypically Jewish New York accent, while Cathey’s Brandon sounds a bit like Thurston Howell III, from Gilligan’s Island. When Brandon gets up to go to the bathroom, he experiences a nasty shock: He discovers that he has turned black, and so has Deborah.

After a comic sequence in which Deborah doesn’t initially recognize Brandon, the two set out to see if it’s just them or the entire world that has changed color. Brandon ventures that, if it’s happened to everyone, this could mean a new era in racial harmony. Alas, the rest of the world remains unaltered, including Brandon’s sister Vivian (Julie Halston) and the couple’s daughter Louise (Samantha Soule). Brandon and Deborah try to convince their relatives of their real identities, to no avail. Vivian gets it in her head that the two are actors hired by the Beales as part of some wild performance art piece, and decides that she should dress up and try to be someone else, as well. I won’t ruin the surprise by telling you what she chooses for a costume, but it really pushes the boundaries of acceptability.

Adding to the complications is the unexpected arrival of Louise’s boyfriend, Winston Lee (Paul H. Juhn). When meeting Brandon and Deborah for the first time, the Chinese-American Winston declares, “I thought I was going to be the surprise race card today.” Another late arrival is the African-American Ashley Brown (Eric Laray Harvey), Brandon’s main competitor for the position of director of the Met.

Whitfield and Cathey are wonderfully amusing as they take on and then discard a number of ethnic stereotypes. Halston, a late replacement for Nora Dunn, is hilarious; her wiry frame and marvelous facial expressions serve her well as she comes to all the wrong conclusions in regard to the Beales’ racial transformation. Soule makes the most of a rather sketchy role, while Juhn as Winston has a laid-back quality that contrasts nicely to the hysterics that other characters often exhibit. Harvey sometimes overacts; he has a strong stage presence but tries too hard for laughs at the expense of grounding his portrayal of Ashley in reality.

Director David Schweizer keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, although some of the transitions between scenes are a bit too long. This is partly due to the fact that James Noone’s set not only necessitates changing the furniture for each new scene but, often, the walls and doors as well. The design concept mixes elegant, tangible furniture with sketched in, two-dimensional backdrops indicating the different rooms of the Beale home.

The play could use a bit of editing; the refusal of the other characters to acknowledge the Beales’ true identities becomes repetitious, causing some scenes in the second act to drag. But overall, White Chocolate is immensely entertaining, an intelligent and witty reflection on the importance that we accord to race.

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White Chocolate

Closed: January 30, 2005