Michael R. Jackson became an elite of the theatre world thanks to A Strange Loop, a searingly personal take on the musical form that won him both a Pulitzer and a Tony. He continues to take on the culture that he absorbed during his formative years with his sophomore effort, White Girl in Danger, a co-production with Second Stage Theaters and Vineyard Theaters that attempts to take on the soap industry and the persistent inability to center its focus on Black characters and stories. The results end up peeling back the curtain on the business, but not in the way that is intended.
The ambitious but convoluted story mimics one of the daytime dramas Jackson watched (although it bears little resemblance to the way any soap has worked in the last thirty years; it’s more similar to some of the primetime teen-centered shows of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as is reflected by numerous references to Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved By the Bell) is set in the fictional town of Allwhite, where the central storylines focus on Meagan (Lauren Marcus), Maegan (Alyse Alan Louis), and Megan (Molly Hager), while Keesha, their classmate and Jackson alter ego, exists in the background – or “Blackground,” for the purposes of the show. Keesha (Latoya Edwards) doesn’t want secondary storylines in which race always plays a role; she wants to be a part of the A-plots about boyfriends and popularity, so she apes the white girls in order to garner more attention, abandoning her Blackness in the process.
As the Blackground characters, including a school custodian (James Jackson, Jr.), Southern plantation slaves (Kayla Davion, Jennifer Fouché, and Ciara Alyse Harris, who substituted for Morgan Siobhan Green at the performance I attended), and one perpetual victim of police violence (Tarik Blackwell), move into the foreground – all while a serial killer continues terrorizing the denizens of Allwhite – the social order is upended. But Jackson’s show itself also becomes increasingly chaotic. Three boyfriend characters – Matthew Scott, Scott Matthew, and Zack Paul Gosselar – are all played by one hard-working actor, Eric William Morris, forced to do many quick changes. (That all three young men are played by the same actor does little to clear up the onstage confusion.) Keesha briefly ends up in an alternate series about cotton-picking slaves. Then she gets dispatched to a courtroom, arguing a case against a prosecuting attorney who also happens to be her mother, previously a lunch lady and school nurse (Tarra Conner Jones, whose mimicry of Nell Benjamin will hopefully not cause permanent damage to her voice). Then, somehow or other, Keesha ends up “president of the nation of Allwhite and CEO of Allwhite Industries and Chief Cultural Tastemaker.” At one point Keesha and Megan fool around to the sounds of a chorus , while behind them the chorus chanting “Lesbian sex! Lesbian sex!”
What White Girl really needed was the same thing the show’s teen characters do: a good parent. The keenly observant Jackson wields his poison pen like a saber, but director Lileana Blain-Cruz has let him run amok. The show is riddled with juvenile references to subjects like “Jason Priestley white’s massive elephant cock,” references semen dozens of times and the librettist seems to enjoy the continual use of the term “BICOC,” short for “Blackground Indigenous Character of Color.” Jackson, white hot since A Strange Loop, might be a victim of his own popularity. I imagine that Second Stage and Vineyard were so eager to claim the follow-up work to such a big property that they secured the rights before Jackson had a fully-formed idea for his show. And that as he started throwing his ideas together, no one interceded to tell him no at any point. (Amid the nits to pick here, I take umbrage to the central premise. Compared to film and primetime television, the world of daytime has always been more progressive in terms of minority representation and social commentary.)
The book issues aren’t the only problem plaguing White Girl, either. Sound design was also an issue with A Strange Loop, but here, the problem has been dialed up to an eleven; Jonathan Deans’ sound design fails the show completely. In a season where many musicals struggled to be heard, White Girl is the least intelligible. One wonders if this show required a director more seasoned in the musical realm. While Blain-Cruz can tackle a versatile range of dramatic subject matter, she might still lack the technical prowess to usher a musical to completion. (Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes, however, are indeed bold and beautiful.) There is also no reason for this show to run past the three-hour mark.
White Girl could have been a dazzling dervish of a show, but instead it’s merely an unfocused one. I wish the powers that be had taken more time with the work. There’s so much more it could have said.
White Girl in Danger
Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater