The white canvas is a rich metaphor. Like the blank page, it can hold as much something or nothing as you like — as long as you can convince the rest of us to see what you do.
To Gus (Tyler Rogers), an early/mid-career artist, his new white-on-white paintings “explore the intersection between my white body, hence the abundance of white, and my gay body, hence …” But Jane (Jennifer Ewing), his old friend and new curatorial powerhouse at the Parnell Museum, doesn’t really care. She’s got a show to curate with a point to prove and Gus isn’t invited — not even if he threw himself into the street to let his body explore the intersection between pavement and tires.
“No white dudes,” she pronounces. Gus whines (“I’m gay!”), but no dice. “There’s just a bit too much chicken sausage over at the museum,” Jane (who is also white) decrees. And that’s that.
So Gus resorts to a hideous strategy: He hires Vanessa (Shermona Mitchell), a shy black woman in his boyfriend’s improv class, to pretend the paintings are hers and get them in the Parnell. Together, they (but mostly Vanessa) cook up a character named Balkonaé: a lesbian, colorblind Yale graduate who recently attended a “spiritual retreat in India,” first read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” at 15 and describes her style as “Bad Bitch Expressionism.”
The first third of “White,” produced by Theatre22 at 12th Avenue Arts, is a mostly inconsequential art-world comedy, but this ruse opens the door for playwright James Ijames to usher in a series of breathtakingly cutting critiques: of minority tokenism, white resentment, art-world posturing, moderate-liberal bloviating and how deeply racial stereotypes entangle themselves in everybody’s minds — no matter how well-meaning you think you are.
This all may sound dangerously didactic, but Ijames pulls it off with a graceful series of conversations that fly lightly through the air but have beaks as sharp as daggers.
Predictably, Jane falls for Balkonaé. “I like you,” the curator coos. “Of course you do!” Balkonaé shoots back. “I’m a damn delight!”
What nobody quite expects is how much Vanessa, once the soft-spoken woman who used to sit on the edge of Gus’ landing and swing her Converse-covered feet like a kid, would prefer to stay Balkonaé and lay permanent claim to the paintings. This is where “White” asks its deeper, more unsettling questions: What happens when white gatekeepers, with all the arrogance of privilege, invite black people to the proverbial table — and the invitees have something unexpected to say? And might decide they’re not leaving? How do the gatekeepers react then? Do they freak out? Or slyly turn their guests into a colorful — but ultimately harmless — commodity? What ultimately becomes of the invitees?
The performances, directed by Tayo Talabi and Corey McDaniel, are all fully serviceable: Rogers plays Gus as anxious and nauseatingly indignant, Ewing’s Jane is smug and aloof, Christian Quinto as Gus’ boyfriend is a fulcrum of sanity while everyone else goes bonkers. But “White” belongs to Mitchell, who shows her breadth as an actor by fully inhabiting every stage of the journey from gentle Vanessa to Balkonaé, with all the permutations in between. (She tries on a few different characters before settling on the creator of “Bad Bitch Expressionism.” Watching her transformation between them is thrilling.)
The play’s final moments are horrifying and slightly sci-fi, but Mitchell manages Ijames’ wild stage directions with total confidence. The audience paused a moment, presumably to gather itself, before starting the applause.
Theatre22 is concurrently running “The Revolutionists” as a lighthearted companion piece — if you can call a story whose characters routinely die by guillotine “lighthearted.”
Four women traipse in and out of a Parisian playwright’s apartment circa 1791, in the thick of revolution and willy-nilly executions: Charlotte Corday (who plans to stab Jacobin journalist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub), Marianne Angelle (an amalgam character based on black, anti-colonial revolutionaries in Haiti), Marie Antoinette (voted Least Popular Woman in revolutionary France) and Olympe de Gouges (the playwright and author of the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” which she dedicated to Antoinette, which helped get de Gouges killed).
The ladies are chatting up a feverish storm and all want something from de Gouges. Corday needs some good last words before her execution, Angelle wants help writing anti-slavery pamphlets and Antoinette hopes for a play that will be kinder to her than the history books.
Director Julie Beckman has set the dial to “madcap,” which suits the play just fine — Lauren Gunderson’s script has a breezy and occasionally hammy style. A sample line: “No one wants a musical about the French Revolution.” Despite a few groaners, it’s pleasant enough.
The actors rise to the challenge, staying grounded while keeping up the pace. Special mention goes to Angela DiMarco as de Gouges, who anchors the play’s tension between self-interest (Antoinette) and idealism (Angelle) by being a typical writer, split right down the middle. “I’m trying to help a lot of people,” she declares, “without leaving my office.”
Shanna Allman makes an extraordinarily amusing Antoinette, who enters the play with the silly grandeur of a Mardi Gras float but leaves it with the dignity of a woman facing death, refusing to be reduced to an effigy. “Do you see this woman, this mother, this citizen queen?” she demands. “You do. And now we are linked. And now, like a simple song played on and on, you will never. Forget. Me.”
Despite the play’s feel-good goofiness, and Antoinette’s overall narcissism, the moment manages to be a little chilling.
“White” by James Ijames and “The Revolutionists” by Lauren Gunderson. Through Nov. 9; Theatre22 at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $15-$28; theatre22.org