“White” A Satirical Comedy
Percy Bartelt, staff writer
Augsburg Theater Department’s production “White,” written by James Ijames and directed by assistant professor Beliza Torres Narvaez, was performed in Foss Center from Oct. 28, 2021 through Oct. 30, 2021.
This comedy centers around a white male painter named Gus, played by Jack Fischel, who wants nothing more than to have his artwork showcased in his friend, played by Savanna Gorbunow, Jane’s art gallery in which she only shows paintings created by marginalized identities. Since that isn’t Gus, racially speaking, he has a bout of self-reflection in which the great Saint Diana Ross, played by Kayla Maria Mielke, descends from the heavens to inspire Gus to explore himself more. He interprets that as looking for the “Black woman inside him” that is just “dying to get out.” Gus is then led by his boyfriend Tanner, played by Aryan Chopra, to a Black female actress named Vanessa, played by Grace Jones. They then conspire to create an artist whom they call “Balkonaé Townsend,” that will submit Gus’ paintings in Jane’s gallery. However, things grow tense when Vanessa adopts her new role as Balkonaé Townsend a little too seriously.
The audience is first greeted with the set of Gus’ apartment and get a feel for his domestic side, seeing his painting equipment and art piece – a canvas only painted white. Throughout the show we also get to see Tanner’s apartment with his desk where he grades English papers; Along with Vanessa’s apartment where we see a packed clothing rack. Something that stood out to me as she was raised up by a staircase was how Mielke as Diana Ross did a wonderful job of giving her a fierce and firm voice to further mirror her strong and impressive character. The whole production seems to take place relative to our current times, with regular attire for every character to boot, and when Balconé is finally revealed at the art gallery, she sports an extravagant avant garde dress to match her personality.
Both subtly and not-so-subtly, “White” addresses serious issues about Black stereotypes and the exploitation of minority voices, experiences and images in a comedic way. The majority of the show expresses this in a sarcastic tone of voice. However, in the last ten minutes the lights dim, reflecting the rather grim and bleak scene approaching that leaves the audience astonished. When asked about their reaction to the ending, Danny Reinan, the production’s sound designer, states that they “were expecting for Vanessa/Balkonaé to sever ties with all of these people who have been trying to dehumanize her.” Given the opposite happened, Reinan believes it actually made “a really powerful statement about the state of racism and anti Blackness in the art world.” They note that “this production of “White” in particular added a really important aspect” since “the director made the choice to have Vanessa/Balkonaé directly stare at and address the audience” ultimately “implicating [the audience] in commodifying her.” This is not at all what myself, nor those around me were expecting to see.We were looking at her like a piece of artwork just as Gus and Jane did. Jones did an astounding job at pulling the audience in and forcing us to see a bigger picture; to look past the production itself, and see the problem at hand. Ultimately, the lines have been blurred and Vanessa can no longer separate her true self from this persona. Gus tries to pull her back into reality, but with Jane’s offer of money and fame, neither Gus nor Vanessa can really look away from, leaving Tanner – and the audience – in utter bafflement, and in the end – feeling guilty.
This show had me on the edge of my seat, had me laughing and even cringing at times, in a good way. I enjoyed how this production executed their message and it was clear that every member of the production not only played a vital role, but put their best effort into the play as well. It was incredibly enlightening and admirable with how they told the audience about such things in both a comedic and serious way.
I highly recommend seeing any future performances, the next one being Iphigenia and Other Daughters running from Nov. 18-20. Everyone both on and off the stage did a fantastic job with this production and I expect nothing but the best from these individuals.