‘White Noise’ review
Time Out says
Suzan-Lori Parks’s savagely absurd drama about a disintegrating biracial friendship group
The premise of ‘White Noise’ is an eyebrow-raising one.
Cursed with insomnia since the age of five, Leo – who is Black – has recently got rid of the white noise machine which his best friend Ralph – who is white – bought him. It helped him sleep: but it killed his artistic inspiration, the echo of its sound filling his head even during the day. As the play begins, he’s also just been roughed up by the cops for no reason beyond his race, and his goody-two-shoes white lawyer girlfriend Dawn wants him to sue. Leo has a different idea though: he has concluded that he’ll feel a lot happier if he… signs himself away into slavery to Ralph, reasoning that racist cops won’t mess with a white man’s property.
It all sounds a bit yikes, like you’re being set up for some sort of didactic, bombastic bad-taste satire. But ‘White Noise’ is by Suzan-Lori Parks, one of America’s greatest playwrights, sadly little-seen over here (albeit largely because of her glacial pace of output). In ‘White Noise’ she wields absurdity like a delicate medical scalpel: it’s there almost constantly, key to the operation, but she controls it with deadly serious, laser focussed intent.
That’s not to say ‘White Noise’ isn’t funny. Lots of things are funny about it, notably James Corrigan’s ‘righteous Ralph’ and his horribly gripping descent from navel-gazing right-on bore into a smirking, man-bunned member of a clandestine club for rich white men who feel oppressed. Or there’s Ask A Black, the hysterically lowest common denominator web phone-in show that Ralph’s Black girlfriend Misha (Faith Omole) runs from their apartment, her on-air persona a hammy exaggeration of Black womanhood. And there is a wonderfully whimsical joke about the four characters having formerly been in a modestly successful pop-punk band at college: at one point they perform their solitary hit, dead straight.
But Parks’s play and Polly Findlay’s production take the funniest stuff seriously. It never showboats, or milks a gag. And while it seems profoundly unlikely that a real Leo would even consider selling himself into slavery (something clearly massively illegal), ‘White Noise’ just goes with it. It’s not an angry play. Rather, it’s a questing, forensic one, that uses Parks’s mischievous humour and Albee-esque sense of character to take a brutally hard look at the constructedness of ‘tolerent’ Western multicultural society.
In many ways Parks’s thesis is that liberal society is in a grand act of self-deception, largely underpinned by the power actually lying with white men anyway. But people sleep better when they drown their fears out in white noise, and the liberal lie is objectively preferable to the sort of morality-free nativism Ralph descends to.
It’s thorny and thoughtful, not nihilistic but possessed of a morbid fascination for the society it is dissecting. It’s also finely acted: Corrigan is hypnotically awful as Ralph, but it’s the sheer sense of damage that Ken Nwosu conveys as Leo that gives it its emotional heft, and Omole and Helena Wilson are great as Mischa and Dawn, both flawed and mercurial and less virtuous than they aspire to be, but also both representing a more nuanced middle ground between Leo and Ralph’s extremes.
‘White Noise’ is only the third Suzan-Lori Parks play to get a major London production since 2003. Odds are that it’s the last of her singular voice we’ll be hearing for a while - so cut through the noise and come down.