Leo (Daveed Diggs), an artist living in an unnamed metropolitan city, has been plagued by insomnia since childhood. His best friend, Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), bought him a white noise machine once, and while it helped Leo sleep, it blocked him artistically. He ditched the machine, and the insomnia came back—but not the work. When Leo is assaulted by the police, his girlfriend, Dawn (Zoë Winters), a self-proclaimed “do-gooder” lawyer, suggests he should sue. Leo has another idea, a request from Ralph: “buy me.” Let me be your slave. “Back in the day,” he tells Ralph, “a guy like me” was protected in his interactions with the law. “Cause the brother was the property of the man. He was safe cause he was”—and before he can finish, Ralph offers the answer: “a slave.” So this is Leo’s proposal: buy me, and I’ll be your slave for forty days.
What follows is the erosion of a decades-long four-person friendship, which also includes Ralph’s girlfriend, Misha (Sheria Irving), host of the web series Ask a Black, in which mostly-white viewers call in to ask increasingly disturbing questions about subjects like Black hair and race wars. Ralph is initially resistant to playing master, but when he is passed over for a promotion (it goes to a more qualified person of color) he settles into his role and becomes more and more comfortable with the politics of grievance. Meanwhile, Leo’s project, which begins with nervous giggling from both friends—”Did we just have a Magical Negro moment?” Ralph asks on day one—eventually takes on the contours of a divine quest, like Muhammad in the wilderness or Christ in the desert.
Now, the most surprising thing about Suzan-Lori Parks’ new play, White Noise, is not this bomb-drop of a setup. Rather, it’s that Parks has written in such a conventional form; absent, for the most part, is the formal experimentation she is famous for: the decidedly nonmimetic dialogue and action, the musicality of the words (Parks is also a singer, songwriter, and guitarist). But few playwrights have wielded as much control, as much precision over their language as she, and really, it should come as no surprise that Parks can effortlessly produce the conventional, too, but with the kind of emotional wallop that this dried-up form rarely sees anymore. Interestingly, in a 1990 interview, Parks said of naturalism, “If you stick to that kind of writing, then all you can write is plays about black men being killed by policemen, as if to indict society, you need a Big Event.” Perhaps she is now interested in tackling the Big Event.