Suzan-Lori Parks works up an ingenious idea in her play “White Noise.” presented by the Public Theater. Leo, played by Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton”), is an African-American who hears incessant noises and has had trouble sleeping since childhood. His insomnia has stifled his desire to be an artist. One night while walking in the street he is accosted and beaten by cops and the episode infuriates him, leading him to think that if he had been a slave as in olden days his white master could at least have protected him. The notion overtakes him and leads him to formulate a plan.
The play works within a framework of four friends from collage interacting in various ways. Leo is in a relationship with a white woman, Dawn, a lawyer played appealingly by Zoe Winters, who has become a defense attorney with one of her passions to beat the system for a minority client even if that client is guilty.
The other two friends are Ralph (an excellent Thomas Sadoski), a white man who is failing at his efforts to get a promotion as a professor and lack of success as an aspiring writer, and is wracked by life’s disappointments. He is in a relationship with Misha, dynamically played by Sheria Irving, who comically emphasizes clichéd blackness in her hip-hop style hosting of a streaming show in which she fields problems from call-ins.
Leo would like to marry Dawn, who clearly isn’t ready for it. We also learn eventually that Dawn and Misha have been having sex on occasion, which unexpectedly turns serious on the part of Dawn. The playwright gives each character a chance for a solo speech directed at the audience and revealing innermost bottled up thoughts and feelings.
But the real dramatic cascade is unleashed from Leo’s plan—a formal contract for Ralph to buy him as a slave to endure servitude for a total of 40 days. At first the idea seems preposterous to his friends, but Leo insists that the experience of giving him the protection he feels he needs in the face of a racially hostile world will help him achieve peace of mind and the $89,000 Ralph is to pay will wipe out his debts. It is, of course, a very bizarre idea, and although his friends express hostility to it at first, Leo’s insistence puts his request into effect, with lawyer Dawn notarizing it.
The concept triggers the explosion of black-white revelations that become the heart of the play, which turns crucially serious even with Parks’ deftness in sprinkling humor along the way. The key is that loser Ralph begins to enjoy the mastery over Leo, taking his ownership with increasing seriousness that enables him to feel more powerful in life at the expense of Leo. There is a harrowing scene in which Ralph, having done some research into slavery, forces Leo to wear a nasty metal slave collar. Worse, he exhibits Leo before a white male club, as well as assuming ownership of a Leo’s story and parlaying it into a New Yorker article.
The effect this ultimately has on Ralph and Leo, as well as on the women, brings the play to its climax and hammers home points about the heritage of slavery and Leo’s illusion that the limited status could give him the security he seeks. As for Ralph, the experience reveals his inner racism in enjoying the superiority that in the end turns him into self-loathing shame.
While the conclusion seems somewhat contrived, Parks achieves an intense exploration of race, feelings and sex in the quest for individual self-determination. Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s artistic director, has directed “White Noise” very effectively, especially in highlighting the actors in their most revealing moments.
I found it amusing that, with Leo and Ralph as expert bowlers, Eustis, with the aid of scenic designer Clint Ramos, includes a bowling alley in which balls are sped along to crash into unseen pins beneath the central seating area with accompanying sound effects. I can’t recall any such set-up in other plays that I have seen. Even if not intended, one might take the bowling as metaphorical, with the pins knocked down as pillars of race bias battered by Parks’ very inventive and sophisticated play. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed March 21, 2019.