“Help,” performed at The Shed by April Mathis and 11 white actors in business suits, is in effect an adaptation by the poet, playwright and Yale professor Claudia Rankine, a Black woman, of her essay, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2019. In that Trump-era piece, she described the course she taught at Yale called “Constructions of Whiteness,” cited studies about the attitudes of white men, mentioned some headline-grabbing incidents, but mostly recounted random personal encounters she had had with white men on airplanes and in airports.
These encounters, dramatized and dissected, with Mathis as narrator and as Rankine’s stand-in, form the core of “Help,” which is why the set by Mimi Lien is of an airport lounge behind panels of glass. But they occur amidst a swirl of other short scenes, interjections, observations and declarations, which are punctuated with poetry, some edgy staging by director Taibi Magar and eccentric choreography by Shamel Pitts. For all this energetic theatricality and the large cast, “Help” never completely escapes its origins as a first-person essay.
The first of the narrator’s airport encounters is “pre-pandemic, pre-Biden” with a man in front of her on the line to board a plane, who makes conversation by saying he doesn’t have a phone; “can’t stand the news” — to which the narrator answers “You shouldn’t have voted for him.”
“It’s not just him,” he replies. (The narrator explains her presumptuousness: “Sixty-one percent of white men, and 47 percent of white women who voted supported our doubly impeached former president— I had almost a two in three chance of guessing right.”)
In another such encounter, a white man steps ahead of her in a line to board a flight; she politely points out what he’s done; he says to his colleague “You never know who they’re letting into first class these days” – which she then analyzes at length with us and with her (white female) therapist, who tells her “You didn’t matter to him. That’s why he could step in front of you in the first place.” His remark was self-deprecating, to cover up his embarrassment with his colleague; “his behavior wasn’t about you.” The narrator says to us: “Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult? Doesn’t she understand my outrage is witness to my existence?”
A third encounter occurs with her seat-mate on a plane, after she tells him she teaches at Yale. He tells her his son wasn’t accepted to the school during the early-application process. “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card” – which results not just in an after-the-fact dissection, but also a relatively open discussion with the man.
All these are provocative, thought-provoking. But the encounter that feels the most like an intelligent conversation between two people, rather than an illustration of a point, occurs not during the narrator’s travels, but with her white husband (Rankine’s husband is white.) It begins with the narrator telling him: “Sometimes you seem to make up for all the rest. Sometimes you are as all the rest,” but goes on to give the husband something close to equal weight in the discussion.
The bulk of the 90 minutes in “Help” is comprised not of such scenes, but of snippets. The Times essay received more than 2,000 comments; Rankine incorporates some of those into her play. She also puts into the mouths of the white actors (nine men, two women) actual quotes from well-known figures saying stupid things, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: “… African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.” If you wish to know who said what, though, you either have to recognize the quote (which is easy for, say, Trump and Amy Cooper, the white Central Park dog walker who called the cops on the Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper; less easy for Sen. Ted Cruz, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, acquitted killer Kyle Rittenhouse, Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, etc.) or else consult the extensive list on The Shed’s website afterwards. (It might have been more customer-friendly had the production projected the name of each well-known speaker in turn.)
The large cast is used as a group in a couple of scenes of real-life incidents: How a female colleague of the police chief in Plainfield, Indiana was reprimanded and put on administrative leave for telling him he benefited from “white male privilege” during a diversity training session; how the entire 2019 West Virginia class of correctional officers was photographed making the Heil Hitler salute. “I’m not demonizing, I’m historicizing,” the narrator comments. (She doesn’t mention that the governor of West Virginia fired all the officers, as well as their instructors.) The cast is also used together in abruptly inserted dance numbers, which sometimes feel like a parody of tribal rituals, with the tribe being white Americans in business class; in one, the performers move their airport chairs in a circle.
If these disparate elements don’t add up to a conventional play, “Help” is tied together by Rankine’s clear, oft-expressed point of view. “Can we agree on this? I, the black woman, am just meant to get on with the program of accommodating white people, their lives, their lies, their lines.”
I suspect that “Help” will elicit one of two reactions from New York theatergoers – either “That’s right, tell ‘em!” or “Well, it’s more complicated than that, really.” In other words, it may be seen as an eye-opener only to those theatergoers who already see things the way Rankine does. My own attitude towards the play changed from the time I saw it to the time I sat down to review it. In-between, I watched how the white Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee treated “with racial overtones,” (as one headline put it) Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be nominated to the United States Supreme Court, who had to accommodate their lies and their lines.
The Griffin Theater at The Shed through April 10, 2022
Running time: 90 minutes
By Claudia Rankine
Directed by Taibi Magar
Choreographed by Shamel Pitts
Set design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by John Torres, sound design by Lee Kinney, and original music composition by Jerome Ellis and James Monaco, along with Robert Duffley, Dramaturg, and David Lurie-Perret, Production Stage Manager.
Cast: April Mathis, Narrator
Jess Barbagallo, White Man #7: Instructor, Kyle Rittenhouse, Anchor, others
David Beach, White Man #4: Mitch McConnell, Capt. Scott Arndt, Commodore, Anchor, others
Tina Benko, White Woman #1: Therapist, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kim Potter, Barbara F. Walter, Kelly Loeffler, Steward, others
Charlotte Bydwell, White Woman #2: Friend, Ann Coulter, Capt. Carrie Weber, Amy Cooper, Lauren Boebert, Steward, Prof. Anne Case, others
Zach McNally, White Man #6: Harvey Peeler, Steward, Anchor, others
Joseph Medeiros, White Man #3: Steve King, Orange Juice, Son, others
Tom O’Keefe, White Man #1:Eric Nelson, Brett Kavanaugh, Husband, others
Matthew Russell, Ensemble (u/s)
Rory Scholl, White Man #9: Donald Trump, Greg McMichaels, others
John Selya, White Man #5: Beau Travail, Prof. Angus Deaton, others
Charlette Speigner, Narrator (u/s)
Jeremy Webb, White Man #2: Ted Cruz, Jefferson, Whitney Dow, Elon Musk, Dr. Richard Sackler, others
Nick Wyman, White Man #8: “Number 8,” Lincoln, Yale/Diversity Card, Bill Gates, others