Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Suzan-Lori Parks confronts and affronts audiences in this play from 2016. When he’s assaulted by police, comfortable but blocked black artist Leo (Ken Nwosu) proposes an extreme experiment to his white best friend Ralph (James Corrigan) – who grew up poor before inheriting his estranged father’s wealth – to see if the racist legacy of colonialism and slavery can be broken. If you’re thinking of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, you’re close.
Leo’s indecent proposal impacts on his white, socially aware lawyer girlfriend Dawn (Helena Wilson), and Ralph’s African-American partner Misha (Faith Omole), who presents a podcast called Ask a Black. At college, the boys previously dated each other’s girl – though the quartet are ostensibly equal players, the focus is on the men – and now they all hang out at Ralph’s gun range. It was a bowling alley in the first US production in 2019, but the change is emblematic of the play’s full-on yowl about how messed up everything is, in America and the wider world.
It’s a sprawling, expressionist work, by turns shocking, funny, challenging and hollow. The four characters conform to the American archetype of outward success masking a yawning chasm within. The play opens with a monologue from Leo about his chronic insomnia, a disjunction from “normal” life that fuels his increasing alienation. All the others get monologues too, which fill in their backstories. But despite excellent work by the cast these aren’t believable characters committing believable acts, but expressions of themes, issues and ideas.
Park’s timing was good. Colonialism is a hot-button issue, and the wall of guns in Lizzie Clachan’s fascinating set speaks to a problem that’s not just American any more. The script anticipates the idea of appropriating another’s experience, a la Cat Person and Bad Art Friend. There’s a nod to the White Supremacist displacement theory that’s rearing its ugly head again. It’s odd, though, to hear terms like “woke” and “social justice” used sincerely now they’ve been rebranded as pejoratives by right-wingers.
The pace of Polly Findlay’s production ebbs and flow, but at its core is an icy determination to make us acknowledge our darkest thoughts and question our belief that we are among “the good guys”. Because we all think that, right?
I’m familiar with the four British actors’ work but honestly had to check in my programme that they weren’t American, so convincing are their accents. There’s great emotional truth in their playing too, even if their actions onstage are patently absurd. I found Parks’s argument about colonialism’s evil legacy convincing, the expression of it less so.
Bridge Theatre to November 13, bridgetheatre.co.uk