Review of White Noise, starring Daveed Diggs, at the Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    March 21, 2019
    Review by:

    In White Noise, four characters take each other — and us — to task. Two Black, two White — two women, two men — they are ancient friends on the verge of becoming enduring enemies over issues each thought long settled. They are woke and arrogant inside that presumption.

    Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a cool Black artist living with a White do-gooder lawyer, Dawn (Zoë Winters). Their friends are a trust-fund White guy named Ralph (Thomas Sadoski) who lives with Misha (Sheria Irving), host of “Ask a Black,” a show she streams. So — some risk of stereotypic characters. Oh, but wait: this is Suzan-Lori Parks. While she tells this subtly layered tale of friendship and fraud from a decidedly Black perspective, she wraps us all into the chaos. We are in this together and not in the kumbaya sense. We are each complicit in our racial hypocrisy. Parks owns this pew in the American theater church.

    Powerful monologues are at the heart of White NoiseDaveed Diggs, as Leo, opens, seated in a chair center stage. Leo tells us his story — his origin myth — about why he cannot sleep. When he was five, a teacher told him that he could not trust that the sun would come up and that did it. He no longer slept nor trusted. The monologues that follow in the course of the play are remarkable, delivering fresh insight on these people about whom you’ve already made up your mind. They are artful roadmaps of their, and our, internal, racially tinged dilemmas.

    The action kicks off with Leo and Dawn at home. She’s off to work defending an at-risk kid. He’s still rebounding from a nasty encounter with the police. They stopped him and put his face to the pavement and did the humiliating “What are you doing in this neighborhood?” thing. His face is scrapped-up but a lot more than his dignity is scarred. He is about to make an unthinkable proposition. His proposal stuns his friends and, in short order, exposes a raw cocktail of resentment and entitlement each has swallowed.

    The play is paced with precision, the performances flawless and engaging. The staging is spectacular in its simplicity. Much is done with a soapbox and with shadow. That said, ultimately, it is the writing that captures the audience. Park’s gifts continue to surprise. She takes a cliché like “losing your shit” — and weaves it into a powerhouse speech about what actually happens when a man batters a women. Over and over, in the quick, spare dialogue, there are flashes of language redefined. You sit in the dark in awe of Ms. Parks.

    It was a New York audience Sunday, with a substantial African American cohort. That means a fair measure of audible communion — the sounds of empathy. Get a ticket if you can… The current run at the Public Theater is scheduled for a May 5 close.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Even its title vibrates vertiginously with layers of meaning. Most literally, White Noise, Suzan-Lori Parks’s enthrallingly thought-packed new play at the Public Theater, refers to the whoosh generated by those much-used, soothing sound makers designed to lull people to sleep. Such a device, we learn early in this astringent and eloquent work from the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, was a gift to an insomniac in his 30s named Leo (a smashing Daveed Diggs), who hasn’t had a good night’s rest since he was 5."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Fantasies can be difficult to review. The usual dictums regarding character and plot development just don’t apply, since fantasies set up and proceed on their own logic. Suzan-Lori Parks’ fantasy White Noise, which received its world premiere Wednesday at the Public Theater, is written as if a very important amendment to the U.S. Constitution never existed, and proceeds from there."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "Suzan-Lori Parks' new play, receiving its world premiere at the Public Theater, deals with many important issues about race relations. You know this because the characters in this complex drama frequently stop to address the audience and lay them out for you. Like so many new works these days, White Noise feels like a series of themes in search of a compelling play."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter