When a group of Loudoun twenty-somethings embarked on some tough discussions about race, they decided to bring the conversation to the broader community.
The result is a new, limited-run local production of New York-based playwright J.T. Rogers’ play, “White People,” that tackles issues of racism—both subconscious and overt—and is designed to get audience members talking about their own assumptions. Performances run May 4 and 6 at StageCoach Theatre Company in Ashburn.
“At the heart of the topic of race politics is a lot of assumptions,” said the show’s 22-year-old director and co-star Josh Webb. “I’ve been asked why I’m doing this play because it seems like it’s just criticizing white Americans. To me, having read the script, it’s not that at all. It’s about acknowledging that we all have assumptions that we make about other people.”
The show’s producers are a group of young people from mostly conservative backgrounds who had their own assumptions challenged by the play, said the show’s marketing director Andrew Carleton.
“The production itself was really organically developed,” Carleton said. “It almost got together as kind of a book club and some of the conversations were really challenging and we wanted to share that with our community.”
The show is independently produced in collaboration with StageCoach, which is providing the venue. And while the show’s three stars are current or former students at Purcellville’s Patrick Henry College, there’s no official tie to the school.
The play, which premiered off-Broadway in 2009, is built on three detached but interspersed monologues from characters wrestling with guilt and prejudice and is a definite departure from the usual suburban community theater fare—which tends to focus on family-oriented musicals. StageCoach’s new space in old Ashburn offers an intimate venue for the sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable and definitely not kid-friendly material.
Webb plays Alan, a well-intended liberal New York professor whose biases are revealed in his fixation with a bright African-American student, and who reaches a boiling point after he and his pregnant wife are mugged in a city park. PHC senior Sarah Geesaman plays Mara Lynn, a North Carolina housewife whose frustration with her life and disabled son is channeled into resentment of his Indian-American doctor. The show’s producer, PHC grad Andrew Kelly, plays Martin, a Saint Louis lawyer who, despite his own anger issues and resentment of black culture, can’t figure out how his teenage son has become a violent skinhead.
When Rogers’ play made its off-Broadway debut in 2009, Webb was a teen growing up in a conservative family in Birmingham, AL. Just a few years later, as a young teen, he came across a piece of Alan’s monologue online while doing research for his Christian homeschool debate league and it struck a chord.
“It was very, very powerful,” Webb said. “I didn’t really have any conception of the topic at a deep level at the time, but I was so moved by the performance.”
Webb kept the piece in mind and, in his last year at PHC, brought in a copy of the script as fodder for an informal discussion group, including Carleton and Kelly. The group decided to take things to the next level with a theatrical production of the play.
“The title is so attention-grabbing that people may misread or have the wrong expectation of what the play’s really about. It’s not about white guilt or blaming one particular group. I think really and truly it’s about understanding and acknowledging that there are things within our subconscious that can affect how we view people and how we think about people in negative ways that we don’t even know are there,” Webb said. “I don’t think we can change how we think about each other until we start asking ourselves those questions.”
For Webb, the production has been life-changing and has even led him to reconsider future plans. Webb, who had planned to go straight from college to law school or graduate school, is now considering a career in entertainment or cultural expression.
“I’ve sort of felt that I’m supposed to say no to those things right now and kind of wait and see what’s going to take their place,” he said. “Doing this and seeing it come together has encouraged me in knowing that if you’re passionate about something and it matters to you, it can become something you spend time on and it can become meaningful.”
And for members of Webb’s team, the goal is to engage as many members of the community as possible, from all backgrounds, and keep a dialog going after the production is over.
“It’s been asked, at what level can you have a genuine conversation regarding subconscious racial bias and racial tensions if everyone in the cast is white,” said marketing director Carleton. “The point of the show is not to say that we have the end all be all, that we have a solution or a resolution because it’s a continuing conversation. What we want to do is share the perspective of the storyteller J.T. Rogers and to legitimately and genuinely examine some of the things that go on every day.”