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I’m white. Does that make my blog better?

July 7, 2008

I went to see Les Liaisons Dangereuses last week, and thought about posting a review, but the holiday weekend snuck up on me, and now the moment has passed, as has the show.  What hasn’t passed was a conversation I had before the show with a charming woman seated next to me.

She was with a group of 6 or so women in their 50s and 60s, the sort of trim, well-heeled, WASPy Long Islanders who see quite a bit of theatre, but don’t really “follow” it in any serious way.  As we were sitting next to each other, and quite early for the show, they chatted in the way that people do:  “Now, who do we know in this?”  “Oh, Laura Linney!”  etc., and when I mentioned that Mamie Gummer (who played Cecile Volanges) is the daughter of Meryl Streep, they were delighted at the almost-famous connection.

When we opened our programs and noticed the stuffer annoucing that Ben Daniels (Valmont) would be replaced by an understudy, a general groan went up.  “This always happens to me!  I’m cursed!” said the woman next to me.  I chimed in that I might be partially “to blame,” too, as recently, I’ve been to several shows with understudies stepping in.  (Really though?  I think it’s just summer.  Actors like vacations, too.)  Anyway, we swapped stories of recent shows w/ understudies onstage, and she said this:

“I went to go see Nameless Play last week, and the main actor was gone, and his understudy was this young black man, and he was just…so standoffish.  So apart from everyone else.  It was just really bad.  And you just hate to think that, because [she whispers conspiratorially], you know, he was black, and…”

I cut her off.  “I guess he just wasn’t very well rehearsed.  That happens.”  The subject was changed, we conversed about other things, and then the play began.  For the record, the Valmont understudy was quite good.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Whiteness recently, and this was a perfect example of how white Americans deal with race–by ascribing failure to non-white’s non-whiteness, even as they apologize for doing so.  The understudy’s race had nothing to do with his success or failure in the performance the woman saw, but she felt she had to include it as a descriptor.  If he had been white, I doubt she would have, because whiteness is invisible, to be white is simply to be human (not a raced being).

Fuck that noise.  Also, my nutshell review of LLD:  Fight choreography: bad; costumes: good.  Set: decent, sound design: yuck.  Direction: flawed (lots of “noisy” blocking); acting:  mixed–but the cast was all-white, so whaddaya expect?  (See how weird that is?)  This play is so much about deception (of others, of self), I actually think it plays better on film, where you can see the subtleties of emotion flit across the actors’ faces in close-ups. 

So if you didn’t see the play, you didn’t really miss anything, except a lesson in racial politics.

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