“We were here first,” says a character in J.T. Rogers’ White People, now receiving its New York premiere from Starry Night Entertainment at the Atlantic Stage 2. “All these new people — black, brown, yellow — they need to see us, get behind us, and wait their turn.” Sadly, this kind of heavy-handed writing is typical of Rogers’ examination of racial prejudice.
The play — which feels much longer than its 90-minute running time — consists of a trio of interwoven monologues, delivered by young New York history professor Alan (Michael Shulman), North Carolina housewife Mara Lynn (Rebecca Brooksher), and high-powered St. Louis (and Brooklyn-born) attorney Martin (John Dossett). The three have very little in common other than the color of their skin and their predisposition to think racist thoughts, even if they stop themselves from voicing them in public. And while two of their stories involve race-based violence (one white on black, the other black on white), it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the play ends on a hopeful note for greater understanding between members of different races.
Rogers probably intends some of the statements made by the trio to be shocking. It’s also possible that he wants or expects the audience to identify and sympathize with some of the attitudes expressed, along with the liberal guilt that accompanies it. However, he’s constructed the piece in too simplistic a fashion to make it an effective theatrical work, since the arguments the characters use to rationalize their opinions feel both outworn and clichéd.
The cast, under Guy Reyes’ haphazard direction, tends to push too hard; and they often seem to be commenting on their characters rather than fully inhabiting them. Still, Dossett does what he can with a script that starts out with Martin wielding a golf club while an operatic aria plays in the background (a set-up that seems completely incongruous with the revelation later in the play that explains what he’s doing in his office on a Sunday). Brooksher brings a tender vulnerability to her portrayal as Mara Lynn talks about her son’s severe illness, which can only be treated by an Indian doctor. Shulman has an animated presence that makes his segments engaging, even if he’s not always convincing in the role.
While Rogers has done some revisions since the play’s premiere in 2000, it stills feel dated — despite a recording of Barack Obama in the opening montage of sound clips (designed by Elizabeth Rhodes). In fact, the three characters never once mention that they’re living in an era when an African American man is President of the United States.