'Help' review — timely, timeless, and time-sensitive
If there was ever a show that speaks to the current moment, it's Help. Or perhaps speaking the current moment is a better phrasing. It's almost uncanny that Claudia Rankine first premiered the very urgent Help at The Shed in 2020, before history's most seismic racial reckoning erupted across the U.S. and the world. The show feels very much like a product of that reckoning, not least of all because real-life political moments feature heavily in the script. They're as recent as Ketanji Brown Jackson's Supreme Court nomination and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's differentiation between "African American" and "American" voters at a January press conference.
Then again, Help's premiere date shouldn't be a shock. Just because call to actions to dismantle whiteness made national headlines in 2020 doesn't mean that people, especially Black people, haven't made these calls long before. This is evidenced by the original genesis of the play: Rankine's pre-pandemic conversations with white men about the privilege they hold, first made into a New York Times Magazine article. Most of these conversations took place in airports and on planes, replicated on stage in Mimi Lien's set. (Its stark whiteness is surely not an accident.)
Many of Rankine's lines — narrated by a charismatic yet mission-driven April Matthis, representative of Black women, in direct audience address — are pulled verbatim from her article, too, right down to the play's title. Rankine astutely wrote about whiteness there, not as a skin color, but a learned mindset. Whiteness, she explains, makes people see themselves as the default, with an inalienable right to take up space and power, unquestioned, at the expense of all others. (It's the system that likely allows me, a white critic, for example, to review a show centered on a Black woman's experience without people dismissing my credibility out of hand.)
Help retains this thesis and expertly expands upon it. Within 90 minutes, "help" transforms from a knowing, sarcastic utterance (as in "Spare me from these people's ignorance") to a dire call, and her timeless observations on the pervasiveness of whiteness become time-sensitive. Not just for Rankine, or Matthis, or Black women, but everyone. She explains, with statistics and stylized movement (performed by the 11-person white ensemble behind her), that alongside Black people getting killed, incarcerated, and targeted are white men committing suicide at the highest rates. It's all for the same reason, Matthis says, steely but sorrowful: "Whiteness is worth dying for."
That line is the core of Help. It's empathetic without being unduly soft on the ugliness of whiteness and those who perpetuate it. Lest you think that, you can look to Taibi Magar and Shamel Pitts's fluid direction and choreography, respectively, that seamlessly blend Rankine's airplane conversations (some more open to discussions of privilege than others) with one-off quotes from white political leaders with full-on reenactments of the January 6 insurrection and the police diversity workshop in which a female captain was verbally attacked for calling out "white male privilege." "If white women can get reprimanded for calling out the system of white male privilege, I should be more terrified than I am of my neighbors, colleagues, and seatmates," Matthis notes after that scene; the staging physicalizes the links between small and large acts of whiteness Rankine writes about.
Every element of Help coheres to create something you can't look away from. (Of course, that's the mark of any great theatre.) You can change the news channel, you can avoid difficult conversations, but you can't escape being in what Matthis calls "the hold" while at the show. The hold of history, of accountability, and hopefully of change, which looks a lot like an airport terminal. Fasten your seatbelts.
Photo credit: April Matthis and the cast of Help. (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, courtesy of The Shed)
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