R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - WHITE with David Norse | Theatre Philadelphia
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R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - WHITE with David Norse

May 15, 2017

David Norse and R. Eric Thomas

Just because we are married does not mean this isn’t a date. For my third Theatre Philadelphia “Theater Date,” a project in which I take Philebrities to plays and then report back about the conversation we have post-show, I’ve decided to invite my husband, David Norse. Neither of us has been out to Theatre Horizon’s Norristown’s location and he likes trains and theater and me, so I figure this qualifies. Plus, soon after we walk in, the theater’s Director of Individual Giving, Lyndsey Piecyk, approaches us and tells David how much she appreciated his TEDx talk. Secure in the authenticity of my husband’s Philebrity status, I feel comfortable proceeding with this date. The invitation stands.  

We are seeing the world premiere of Philadelphia playwright James Ijames’ WHITE, a searing, satirical play about a white gay artist, Gus (Jamison Foreman), who conspires to invent a black female persona for himself, physically manifested by an actress, Vanessa (Jaylene Clark Owens). Gus’ objective is to get his work into a museum and prove a point about inclusion. The play wrestles vigorously with notions of appropriation and theft, as well as the difficulty of being in relationship with people across cultural experiences. I lean over midway through the play, as Gus’ Asian-American boyfriend (Justin Jain) excoriates him about his privilege-blindness, and whisper to David (who is white), “I didn’t bring you here to send a message.” Sometimes an invitation is just an invitation.


Justin Jain as Tanner and
Jamison Foreman as Gus in WHITE

After the play is over, we find ourselves talking a lot about permission and invitations. The trouble starts early for Gus, hinging on an invitation he covets but does not receive. Jane (Jessica Bedford), a longtime friend of his, is curating an exhibit at a prestigious gallery. He wants in but she wants only artists of color, preferably female. She’s looking for difference; he posits that his gay identity is difference enough. The invitation to show work at the Parnell never comes so Gus, like every protagonist before him, takes matters into his own hands.

But is he just the protagonist, a figure whom we come to expect will act first and ask permission later, or is he something more sinister, the embodiment of privilege, a speeding train of want barrelling through the landscape of other people’s stories? That’s what we chew on as the Regional Rail line chugs away from Montgomery County, through Manayunk and East Falls, back down into Center City.

Gus hires Vanessa to play a black, lesbian artist. He’ll paint the paintings; she’ll be the face and voice; they’ll create the persona together and everyone will be fooled. When he pitches his plan to Vanessa, Gus tells her it will be “an exercise in absence,” a chilling turn-of-phrase when talking to a black woman, about a class of people who have been systematically erased. Later, he rationalizes the deception by noting that “every gay man has a black woman inside of him.” Vanessa’s face closes up faster than a Chik-Fil-A on a Sunday. It’s the first of many unwelcome liberties Gus will take. One wonders why any of the people around him let him get away with it. But the play subtly points out that this sort of thing happens in tiny ways all the time. People are constantly entering spaces to which they have not been invited.

David is a pastor in the city; in his time in Philly he has worked with a number of diverse congregations and he’s seen--in other churches around the country--places where intention and invitation come into conflict. Gus in WHITE never quite seems to understand why everything has spiralled so wildly out of hand. (Spoiler alert: things spiral wildly out of hand.) Similarly, David says, he’s witnessed church leaders and congregations where tensions flare up because those churches wanted to involve themselves in conversations about race, sexuality or diversity but didn’t know how to be in relationship with the marginalized people they wanted to help.

Jaylene Clark Owens as Vanessa in WHITE

How often do we get tripped up in trying to reach out to another who is different from us because we’re taking liberties for which we don’t have permission? That’s the thing that sticks in our teeth after WHITE. When pressed, most of us would probably blanche at the idea of having to ask permission to fight for another person’s freedom, for fair representation, for a more inclusive conversation. But, as the train pulls into Suburban Station, nestled squarely in the urban expanse of Center City, we settle into a familiar discussion about the difference between allies and accomplices. Oversimplified, an ally is someone wants to help a group or individual with less privilege or power, but does so from the relative comfort of the ally’s position. An accomplice is someone who conspires with a group or individual with less privilege or power in an attempt to get that group or individual more power, often by ceding some of the accomplice’s own power. Allyship means you don’t move; accomplice-ship means you do. (Here’s a deeper dive by more erudite thinkers than me.)

Isn’t that the measure of a protagonist also? Does he move? Does he change? Does he get what he wants? In Gus’ case the answer is no. In Vanessa’s, it’s a little more complicated. And so we end our evening talking about her, the figure at the center of the piece, a body on to which ideas are projected, a personality that rejects intrusion and takes her own permissions. We feel like hers is the story the play invites us to linger on. At least we think it’s an invitation. Maybe it’s not. Maybe her story is just there, existing all on its own, without the need for our help or opinions.


WHITE by James Ijames, directed Malika Oyetimein, is produced by Theatre Horizon. It opened on May 3 and runs through May 28. Find tickets and more information at theatrehorizon.org

R. Eric Thomas is an award-winning playwright and humorist. His most recent play, Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and was named a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. He writes a daily humor column for ELLE.com in which he “reads” the news. In addition to ELLE.com and ELLE magazine, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, W, Man Repeller, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and more. rericthomas.com

R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - WHITE at Theatre Horizon with David Norse