How 'White Girl in Danger' blends soap opera and social satire
The cast and creative team of the new musical, created by Michael R. Jackson, dishes on the TV references and more packed into this "soap opera on steroids."
It took 20 years for Michael R. Jackson to get A Strange Loop, his Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning musical that debuted on Broadway last year, to the stage. In a way, his latest Off-Broadway show, White Girl in Danger, is even longer in the making. Whereas A Strange Loop is based on personal and professional struggles from Jackson's early 20s, White Girl in Danger was born of something that's been in his life since childhood.
"My mother and father both worked, so they would drop me off at my great-aunt's house," where soaps were always on, Jackson explained. "I just got engrossed in the stories without end. There's something about watching these characters... change and go through peril and adventure and woe and happiness and ecstasy that just appealed to the part of me that wanted more than my ordinary, everyday life."
In fact, Jackson originally dreamed of a career writing soap operas, but musical theatre came calling. White Girl in Danger, which he officially started work on in 2017, combines the two with the story of Keesha, a "Blackground" character in a soap opera town called Allwhite. Tired of acting out secondary plotlines about racism and violence over and over, she steals the spotlight — or tries to — from a trio of white leads.
The word "absurd" repeatedly came up as cast and creative team members described how this story plays out on stage. Indeed, White Girl in Danger turns up the ridiculousness way beyond any TV drama. But unlike most soaps, the musical even layers in some astute commentary amid it all.
"My default is a Black cultural consciousness, but obviously, I also grew up watching a lot of white things," Jackson said. "As I dove into the story of White Girl in Danger, it became clear that I was really exploring a Black desire for autonomy and agency within a white construct and trying to figure out, is that possible? Is it even a good idea?"
But to understand how Keesha navigates these questions, you first have to meet her co-stars in the world of Allwhite.
"A soap opera on steroids"
What soap operas can audiences expect to see echoes of in White Girl in Danger? It might be quicker to name the ones not reflected in the world of Allwhite.
Jackson cited a broad range of media that inspired him: "soaps and Lifetime movies and Melrose Place and 90210" — staples of the '80s, '90s, and '00s TV scene. On top of that, each cast member infuses characters from media past and present into their performances, making for one chaotic pop-culture hodgepodge.
Take the three white girls whose stories Keesha hijacks. Lauren Marcus based her character, Meagan Whitehead, on Lifetime movie protagonists with abusive boyfriends. Alyse Alan Louis "took inspiration from movies with Tracy Gould and Calista Flockhart" to play the anxious, type-A Maegan Whitehall. Finally, Molly Hager's Megan White is the "bad girl": "a conglomeration of Marty Saybrooke, who is a soap opera character [from One Life to Live], Tiffani Amber Thiessen from 90210, [and] Neve Campbell [from] Party of Five."
Eric William Morris plays the boyfriends of all three: Zack Paul Gosselar ("a feral raccoon"), Matthew Scott ("a hero rich boy"), and Scott Matthew ("a cartoon version of Luke Perry from 90210"), respectively.
Similarly one-dimensional are Keesha's fellow "Blackgrounds": the bombshell Abilene (Jennifer Fouché), the happy-go-lucky sitcom best friend Caroline (Morgan Siobhan Green), and the confrontational Florence (Kayla Davion). There are echoes of specific TV characters in their portrayals — Davion described her Florence as "a mixture of Pam and Sheneneh from [the sitcom] Martin" — but above all, they're stock characters with, as Green described, "as little nuance as possible."
Rounding out the population of Allwhite is Tarik #Blackwell, "a van Peebles-slash-John Singleton heartthrob in a soap opera world" who Vincent Jamal Hooper infuses with various influences: Ice-T in Law & Order and the cartoons Black Dynamite and The Boondocks. There's the deliberately mysterious James Jackson, Jr. as Clarence.
Finally, like Morris, Brown assumes three personae as the Megans' moms, inflecting her voice differently as she said each character's name. "I'm definitely leaning into the wealthy socialite trope for Judith..." she explained. "Diane could be like the mom on 90210. She's just a suburban do-gooder mom who loves her kids. And then you have [Barbara,] this scrapping-at-anything, downtrodden one who would cut you for anything she could get."
Going beyond soap operas
Not all the dramas name-dropped above, you might be thinking, are considered "soap operas." True, but they all rely on a similar form of larger-than-life drama found across TV, film, and even theatre.
Latoya Edwards noted this when describing her portrayal of Keesha: "[I'm referencing] Hilary and Ashley Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, even thinking about characters of what I would call current-day soap operas, like Grey's Anatomy or Scandal." Even non-soap fans will find TV tropes they love in White Girl in Danger.
The message beneath the melodrama
Originally, White Girl in Danger was a pure parody of soap operas' melodramatic (and white-heavy) plot lines and stock characters. However, in response to the past few years' renewed calls for racial equity, Michael R. Jackson layers social commentary amid the satire.
"I never realized that the Black girl in [soap opera] stories was always just the friend, the neighbor, the mom, the helpful guidance counselor — sometimes even the maid, on Young and the Restless," James Jackson, Jr., a fellow soap opera fan, observed. "They were never at the center of the story, and I didn't even pick up on it because it was 1980-something, and I was just watching TV and watching these fun women screaming at each other."
Keesha steals the spotlight from these women not out of arrogance, but a desire "to be appreciated for the range that [she has]" as a Black actor, which Edwards finds relatable. But even Keesha's mother disapproves of her quest, pointing to a central theme of White Girl in Danger. What does it mean to insert yourself into a story that wasn't written for you, without changing anything?
"To see a young Black woman centered in this story is such a cool thing to watch because it might or might not work to just plop someone in a story and say, 'Go have at it. This is the way we've always done things. Go be the center of the story,'" James Jackson Jr, said. "It might not work all the time."
Building on A Strange Loop
Thematically, White Girl in Danger is a "companion piece" to A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson said. Keesha and Usher, Loop's main character, both seek out their "inner white girl" — the part of them that's confident, complex, and noticeable in worlds that don't value Blackness.
But both musicals also celebrate Black people taking control of their own stories — as Michael R. Jackson has done by simply writing them. That's worth tuning into.
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