I left feeling like I had been shot, straight to the heart. I stumbled out of the dimly lit theater with the play’s final, cacophonous sound ringing in my ears and my bones, conflicting with lilting jazz piano music coming over the speakers, an attempt to quell the audience’s nerves. “White History,” written and directed by Dave Harris ’16, is an undeniably powerful work of art. It means to shock and cripple its audience, and it succeeds. It’s at once outrageous, realistic and disturbing.
The play begins with a rumbling sound and a ticking clock. At once, we meet Bonnie and Todd, a saccharine white couple, who have recently moved into the neighborhood. Their married rapport is suddenly interrupted by a Klu Klux Klan member, who kicks open their door, barging in with a rifle and noose. Once he realizes they are not the black couple he expected, he begins to break down. Bonnie, taking pity on him, eventually invites him to join them for dinner. Their table conversation reveals that Bonnie and Todd are “colorblind,” meaning that they don’t see race. This revelation spurs an epiphany for the KKK man, who declares, “This is progress,” as he rips off his mask. The moment is cast in a disturbingly red light, and concludes the first act on a sinister note.
The second act opens with Bonnie and Todd preparing dinner; now, they are hosting Monica and Perry, the black couple whom the KKK man had originally intended to lynch. As the dialogue degenerates from small talk to more surreal, racially charged discussions, the atmosphere grows more and more tense.
Queasy, wince-worthy moments abound in “White History.” Much of the dialogue seems intentionally forced, with the actors overenunciating and extorting laughter from their vocal cords. As jokes are made, the actors face each other and laugh for a few seconds before turning onto the audience to laugh a few decibels louder, as if we are all in on some unspoken joke. But we are not. Quite literally in the dark, we are left bewildered, laughing uncomfortably, as though we’ve heard a politically incorrect joke but aren’t sure whether to speak up.
These moments beg the audience to question their own biases. We are supposed to wince and squirm as the word nigger is repeated over and over by various characters. We are supposed to collectively gasp as Bonnie makes comments about Monica’s hair and her desire to touch it. They are phrases we may have heard before in daily conversation, but recognize as wrong.
For a student-written play, “White History” delivers a mature, phenomenal production. All five cast members perform at a high caliber, delivering a cohesive, impactful drama. Lauren Modiano ’17 stood out for playing a particularly difficult role in Bonnie, whose naive fixation with black culture morphs into dangerous obsession. Olivia Klevorn ’17 also delivered a remarkable performance as Monica, the most affected by the racial illiteracy of the characters who surround her.
The production also makes remarkable use of sound and light. The play’s most haunting moments occur when the characters are silent, and background sounds or natural light effuse through the theater.
As impressed as I was with the production and construction of the play’s storyline, I left with many unanswered questions — which Harris likely intended, clearly having handpicked these phrases and reactions, puppeteering his audience’s emotions and thought processes. There are so many questions: Is it possible to live in a colorless, raceless world? Or are we deluding ourselves into thinking that such a reality is possible? And is such a reality destructive in nature?
Bonnie and Todd emphatically state that race no longer exists, and by denying a racially fraught history that is as much black as it is white, they only perpetuate modern racism, as shown in their interactions with Monica and Perry. Perhaps most of all, I wonder what solution Harris wants us to imagine: the haunting production feels misanthropic, though vital. “White History” will force you to reconsider history, and leave you with food for thought and — perhaps most importantly — action.