The 1971 Stanford prison experiment exposed how quickly ordinary people can become monsters when their social roles allow it; abusive prison-guard dynamics emerged in just five days. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s provocative, gripping new work White Noise centres on an “experiment” that stretches over 40 days, and explores something much deeper: the underrecorded legacy of slavery, and the scars it has left on today’s Americans.
Recovering from a violent encounter with the police, struggling artist Leo (Ken Nwosu) decides that he wants his reluctantly rich friend Ralph (James Corrigan) to “buy” him. He thinks there’ll be a safety that comes from being this white man’s property. Initially, he certainly enjoys cooking breakfast souffles for his former college sports buddy. But Ralph isn’t to be trifled with. His new powers puff out his chest, give him sadistic ideas, and win him the respect of the “White Club”.
It’s a massively implausible scenario but it’s one that makes sense in the wittily heightened, satirical world of White Noise, which takes carefully observed human tendencies and blows them up until they’re huge and monstrous, like Shrek inflating a frog and using it as a balloon. Ralph isn’t just ashamed of his straight-white-maleness, he’s terrified of it, to the point where he tells baroquely elaborate anecdotes about his traumatic childhood whenever his privilege is mentioned. His partner Misha (Faith Omole) works through her own conflicts by running a radio show called “Ask A Black” where, like Leo, she exposes herself to fresh trauma under the guise of healing. And Leo’s partner Dawn (Helena Wilson) is a lawyer with a “white saviour” complex that horribly dovetails with her voracious appetite for power and recognition.
Director Polly Findlay’s production is full of goofy, witty energy that sparks off this strange play. These four mates like to go shooting together, so Lizzie Clachan’s set design turns the whole theatre into a buzzing neon shooting gallery when it’s not a brilliantly realistic, modishly Seventies-influenced kitchen or influencer-ready bedroom. Parks’s bravura monologue scenes are particularly well-staged, the characters swirling the audience into their twisted logic from the edge of the stage, as they sit in pools of golden light.
This slick production can’t efface the fact that there’s something a little off-kilter about this play’s structure, with its disproportionately long and sprawling second act and its plot strands that don’t quite come together. Misha and Dawn’s narrative feels distinctly secondary to Ralph and Leo’s journey, which offers Nwosu and Corrigan the chance to deliver compelling performances as they fall, sharply and entirely, into their new roles.
Can people really change so quickly? Yes, if they were never what they seemed to be in the first place. Parks’s play is undercut with a fatalism about a culturally required wokeness that only goes surface-deep, that’s rapidly shrugged off like a heavy coat when things get too heated. It’s grim, brilliantly perceptive, and lets no one off the hook.
‘White Noise’ runs at the Bridge Theatre until 13 November