'WHITE' at Theatre Horizon: Racial conflict, art, and laughs

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Jaylene Clark Owens, Jamison Foreman, and Jessica Bedford in the Theatre Horizon production of James Ijames' "White."

James Ijames’ White, now at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, adds to a growing body of plays tackling the issue of racial conflict in the increasingly diverse and purportedly post-racial United States of America. Like Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, it digs into black anger over white appropriation; like Bruce Graham’s White Guy on the Bus, it portrays the white animus that fuels conflict. This funny new 90-minute work draws on both life and art to examine racial tourism, power, and identity.

In White, gay white male artist Gus (Jamison Foreman) cranks out canvas after canvas of cream-colored paintings, some crisscrossed diagonally, others looking like Ikea ads. He lectures at a college, receives fellowships, and lives with his boyfriend, Tanner (Justin Jain). He has achieved comfortable success, but not fame.

When he learns that Jane (Jessica Bedford), his best friend from grad school, has recently become senior curator at the illustrious (and fictional) Parnell Museum, he begs her to put him in their “New America” exhibition. But Jane tells him that the new America needs new voices, that there’s no room for white guys. 

So Gus hires Vanessa (Jaylene Clark Owens), a local African American actress, to invent a fictional artist named Balkonaé Townsend, and the pair construct a quick, humorous backstory for her (vegan, feminist, etc.).

Ijames’ plot recalls Joe Scanlan, a white artist who in the early 2000s similarly imagined Donelle Woolford, a black woman who presented Scanlan’s works as her own. But unlike Scanlan, who said of his own pieces, “They seemed like they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references,” Gus simply resents being on the business end of Lenin’s famous question about any class struggle: “Who will prevail over whom?” 

In this regard, the otherwise excellent Foreman overindulges the animosity, perhaps in Ijames’ quest to create a human (rather than ideas-oriented) conflict, to which Jain depicts a very sympathetic counterpart. Bedford adds the right degree of elitism, and Owens tackles the mammoth role of Vanessa with tenacity, impressive comic timing, and real depth in her duplicity.

White bursts with humor, which director Malika Oyetimein and this cast exploit for huge laughs, the best of which come at the expense of the institutionalization of art and its current fascination with trends like intersectionality and buzzwords like problematizeinterrogate, and hegemony.

The ending adds a surreal twist, driving home Ijames’ exploration of black women’s exploitation by feminism, by contemporary culture, and by white women. It recalls, in a less vicious sense, how Neil LaBute capped off his play The Shape of Things.

White. Through May 28 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St, Norristown. Tickets: $15-$35. Information: 610-283-2230 or theatrehorizon.org.