Caught in Our Categories

What do white men think about their whiteness? This is the question, more or less, that motivates Claudia Rankine’s Help. A narrator (April Matthis) tells us she is “here—not as I—but as we—a representative of my category,” the roughly eight percent of Americans who are Black women. At airports, in lines and lounges, while seated on airplanes, she strikes up conversations with representatives of another category. Her questions are not confrontational; she is genuinely curious. “I just want to talk,” she tells us early on.

When we walk into the theater, nine white men and two white women shmooze behind a glass wall; the walls behind them are white, the seats Pan Am blue, and a single plant sits downstage left. It looks a little like an airport, but it also looks a little like a laboratory. Help is, in effect, an anthropological study of whiteness, and in particular of white male attitudes about whiteness.

The data should come as no surprise. There is the man (Jeremy Webb) who says, “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days,” after cutting the narrator in line; the therapist (Tina Benko) who offers a suspiciously generous reading of this interaction; the man (David Beach) who says, “I don’t see color”; and the partner (Tom O’Keefe) of twenty years who still tries to stand outside of everything without acknowledging that it is a privilege to be able to do so. Formally, the play shares quite a bit with a public reading, with actors illustrating anecdotes from a narrative essay.

Much of the material in Help is also explored in Rankine’s book Just Us: An American Conversation, a combination of poetry, photography, collage, and essay. The title is taken from Richard Pryor: “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” The “just us” also refers to the conversations she has as well as the relationship between reader and writer. It doesn’t work in a theatrical context because it’s no longer just us: there’s an audience, and there are eleven other actors on stage, all white. This creates a sense of dread, of drowning—in other words, of drama—but it also eliminates the intimacy of a conversation.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the text is as effective, either, without that intimacy, or without the abundance of analysis that a book, especially a longer book, can offer. At ninety minutes, what is proposed as a study of whiteness can often feel like a study for whiteness—who in the audience, after all, stands to learn from these conversations? Further, the presence of eleven white actors alongside a single Black actor raises another question: who stands to profit from these conversations? Rankine is unmatched as a poet, but in this case, I don’t think the translation to the theater does justice to the material.

Help runs through April 10th at The Shed.  545 W. 30th Street  New York, NY.  1 hour 30 minutes.  No intermission. Photograph by Kate Glicksberg.

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