Caleb Eugley and Danny Gay as Gus and Tanner in “White.” Photo by French’s Foto Photography

Who are you and how did you get to where you are in the world? Did you choose your path or were choices made for you? Who’s calling the shots? Who should be?

Questions, intertwined with issues of gender, race, art and sexuality, mount in “White,” the latest production from Mad Horse Theatre. But the 2017 play by James Ijames presents them with a generous amount of satirical comedy.

This thought-provoking and edgily entertaining play concerns a white visual artist named Gus who’s outraged because his white curator friend, Jane, won’t advance his career by putting his work into a prestigious museum show. She loves his painting and reveals to him that, “If you were Black and female … it would be perfect” for the show.

Alyssa Pearl-Ross as Saint Diana.

In one of the play’s more fanciful turns, a Saint Diana appears to Gus, claiming she is “the woman (he) always wanted to be” and suggests a path for him to try to get his work into the show. Misunderstanding her advice, he enlists Vanessa, an African American actress friend of his Asian partner, Tanner, to present his artwork as hers and thereby help to get it accepted.

Many of the best laughs in “White” come as Gus and Vanessa work out the specifics of how the new female artist, who will be known as Balkonaé, should present herself to Jane. Their plot then becomes hilariously problematic as Balkonaé starts to take charge.

Alyssa Pearl-Ross is a marvel in her three roles (she also plays Diana). Her Balkonaé impressively gains a sense of style and seeming mastery over a cultural realm previously defined and controlled by white people. Pearl-Ross’ performance heightens every scene as her Vanessa discovers the appeal of being “sexy and unruly and womanish.”


Pearl-Ross and Eugley.

Caleb Eugley stands out as Gus, a competitive guy who laments losing the advantages of his prior status to the reality of a “New America” proclaimed by Jane. His relationship with Tanner, played as a likeable sweetheart by Danny Gay, suddenly requires reexamination for possible hidden motivations beyond their love.

Lauren Stockless, who has had a busy season directing at Mad Horse and elsewhere, steps in front of the audience this time as the imperious Jane. She knowingly inhabits a character who stays on top of current trends, if only to exploit them.

Co-directors Maya Williams and Joshua N Hsu have put together an excellent production to explore the author’s insights into the impact of shifts in notions of identity and privilege in today’s world.

Arresting set design and projections by Daniel Brodhead, protean lighting by Louise Ambler and occasionally flashy costumes by Benedicto Bonabara add flavor to a production that may not entirely “revolutionize the way people think about diversity,” as Gus claims he wants to do. Nevertheless, “White” very engagingly raises a lot of important questions and suggests that the consequences of not asking them can indeed be very serious.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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