If “White Girl in Danger” were an actual soap opera, it would unfold over several years, which would give us time to savor Michael R. Jackson’s febrile intelligence and his subversive sense of humor. But it is hard to unpack all that Jackson crams into his second musical (after his award-winning “A Strange Loop”): crazed soap opera storylines, parody videos, loud rock numbers, satiric sketches, a show-stopping solo and a pointed climactic metatheatrical monologue. At three hours long, “White Girl in Danger,” despite any number of funny, clever, entertaining and thought-provoking moments, is challenging even just to sit through.
Keesha Gibbs (Latoya Edwards) is a “Blackground” player for the soap opera town of Allwhite. She is “tired of the way the Allwhite Writer treats us…It’s like we’re second-class characters.” But, after the Allwhite Killer offs Molly Allwhite, Keesha is promoted to take Molly’s place as Best Friend.
Keesha strives to fit in with fellow teenagers Maegan Whitehall, Megan White, and Meagan Whitehead, and hopes, ultimately, to get her own Allwhite story, just like the ones the white girls have. Maegan (Alyse Alan Louis) is anorexic and obsessive-compulsive (“Ohmygod, the SATs are in like an hour and if I don’t lose five pounds and earn my keep at home, Mom’s gonna kill me.”) Megan (Molly Hager) is a poor little rich girl with a drug problem and abandonment issues (“I don’t care what Mother says! I’m the prettiest and the sluttiest! I’m way prettier and sluttier than her or my stuck-up twin sister!”) Meagan (Lauren Marcus) keeps on getting injured, explaining each of them as an accident or the result of her own clumsiness. Eventually, it’s revealed (if I understood this correctly) that she is actually just a klutz. We were led to believe her injuries were the result of domestic violence, because the girls’ white boyfriends, Matthew Scott, Scott Matthew and Zack Paul Gosselar (all played by Eric William Morris) want only to deflower and/or abuse them.
Meanwhile back in Blackground, Keesha’s mother Nell (Tarra Conner Jones) disapproves of Keesha’s move to Allwhite. ’Those Allwhites got you dancing like a trained damn monkey!” Tariq Blackwell (Vincent Jamal Hooper), who’s been murdered by the police, comes back from the dead to bring Keesha back to her senses and have sex with her, but she’ll have none of him. The other Blackgrounds, Florence, Caroline and Abilene, are busy attending police violence story time, or re-enacting slavery times.
Keesha and the other characters move through twists and turns that are increasingly off the wall, involving a hospital, courtroom, fashion gala, presidential campaign, battle of the bands, lesbian sex orgy, the Allwhite woods where the Allwhite Killer is unmasked, a battle around an electric chair….and more. If this somehow sounds coherent, it isn’t.
It becomes evident early on that Jackson is using soap operas in “White Girl in Danger” the way Jackie Sibblies Drury used TV sitcoms in her Pulitzer-winning play “Fairview” — as a metaphor for racial attitudes in the culture at large.
Keesha tries to organize the Blackgrounds into performing Blackground Girl Magic and taking over the Allwhite stories. The Blackgrounds resist; “everybody ain’t tryin’ to be no snivelin’ little Allwhite hussy like you,” says Florence (Kayla Davion.) “Some Blackground folk still goss some pride in dey skin oppression!”
“And what about The Allwhite Writer? We can’t do nuthin’ he don’t want us to do ,” Caroline (Morgan Siobhan Green) chimes in.
Keesha’s response: “Mother’s respectability politics are just not aligned with the radicality of this Blackground excellence abolition movement, Caroline. An interblacktional bleminist movement that will liberate all Blackgrounds! And as far as the Allwhite Writer, big trouble sounds like good trouble to me!”
This ferocious parody of wokeness is not an isolated occurrence in “White Girl in Danger.” Jackson also targets anti-racism, cancel culture, the term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Color) replacing it with BICOC, as bawdy as it sounds. He treats with irreverence well-known phrases from such Black heroes as Congressman John Lewis (that’s where “good trouble” comes from) and Maya Angelou. He even parodies Oprah, with a video of a talk show called Mammy (Tarra Conner Jones again.) Mammy interviews Prince Larry and Duchess Meghan Blackle, who reveals that the stress of their new lives “has caused me to develop painful misogynoirhoids in my blagina,” which Prince Larry says he treats with “my tongue and my todger.” (Be warned that the vulgar language in “White Girl in Danger” goes far beyond what you can hear on TV, even cable.)
Near the end of “White Girl in Danger,” Jackson makes explicit how “White Girl in Danger” came to be, and what it’s attempting to do, in a metatheatrical monologue and song by the character Clarence (James Jackson Jr) who reveals himself to be the almighty Allwhite Writer. ( I suppose this is a spoiler; I prefer to see it as doing my part to clear up some of the confusion.) Clarence (i.e. Michael R. Jackson) fell in love with soap operas from the age of five, when he started watching them with his great aunt:
So all my earliest childhood memories were of these white women fighting
In sparkly 80s evening gowns
And having sex in conference rooms
And this all shaped my consciousness
Before I came to my Blackness
He (Clarence, but really Michael R. Jackson) developed a love-hate relationship with the soaps because of their treatment of Black people, But the monologue also explains his disappointment with the attitudes of what he calls the “Bourgie black,” and the “tedious BIPOC black” (“I love my race…I utterly loathe my social class”) — which is why they are so skewered in the musical. He wanted a soap that “centered” Black women characters, giving respect especially to the stereotypical “black maid-mammy characters in everything from Gone With The Wind to Caroline, Or Change.”
Left unmentioned: When Jackson first started watching soap operas, in the 1980s, their number on network television had fallen from a peak of 18, but there were still about a dozen crowding the afternoon airways. Now there are just three left. If parodying these self-parodies long has been a common pastime, it’s a pastime that now feels past its time.
Despite Jackson’s lifelong soap opera passion and encyclopedic knowledge, his show largely ignores one important quality of soap operas that helped make them so popular for so long: As implausible as the story arcs are, the actors try to make each individual moment feel real. The dozen talented members of the cast of “White Girl in Danger” are rarely given the chance to do this.
There are exceptions — James Jackson Jr in that metatheatrical monologue. Tarra Conner Jones is always Keesha’s concerned mother Nell, even as Nell is promoted from high school lunch lady to nurse to assistant district attorney (with time out as Mammy) to diva delivering the showstopping number. Jones does what the Allwhite Writer aka Clarence (aka Michael R. Jackson) set out to do — invests the maid/mammy characters with respect. It’s hard to see, on the other hand, how Jackson is breaking new ground by having the fat Black woman belt out the gospel-infused showstopping number.
The creative team under the direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz does some stellar work – the expert incorporation of movement by Raja Feather Kelly, the playful and efficient set design by Adam Rigg who communicates in shorthand (flipping a sign to create a hospital), the spot-on costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, the lighting, sound and projection designers humorous emphasis on how all-powerful the Allwhite Writer is (thunder, lightning; the works.) They all make a vigorous effort to turn the musical numbers memorable. But for all this attention to stagecraft, “White Girl in Danger” is not a good showcase for Jackson’s songs. The musical numbers don’t so much enhance the scenes as compete with them. They’re just too much. For much the same reason, “White Girl In Danger” as a whole is not the most effective expression of Michael R. Jackson’s talent and ambition.
White Girl in Danger
Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through May 21, 2023
Tickets:: $46 – $132
Running time: Three hours including one 15-minute intermission
Music, Book, and Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly
Scenic design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Jonathan Deans, projection design by Josh Higgason
Cast: Liz Lark Brown as Diane W/Barbara W, Judith W, Kayla Davion as Florence, Latoya Edwards as Keesha Gibbs, Jennifer Fouche as Abilene, Morgan Siobhan Green as Caroline, Molly Hager as Megan White, Vincent Jamal Hooper as Tarik Blackwell, James Jackson Jr. as Clarence, Tarra Conner Jones as Nell Gibbs, Alyse Alan Louis as Maegan Whitehall, Lauren Marcus as Meagan Whitehead, Eric William Morris as Matthew S/Scott M/Zack Paul Gosselar
Photographs by Marc J. Franklin