By Claudia Rankine; Directed by Taibi Magar; Choreographed by Shamel Pitts
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 4.10.22
The Shed, 545 West 30th Street
by Dan Dinero on 3.25.22
April Matthis (R) and the cast of Help. Photo by Kate Glicksberg.
BOTTOM LINE: For those who read (and loved) White Fragility.
As you enter the Shed’s Griffin Theater to see Help, you walk past a cage of white folk in suits. I mean, the cage has glass walls and plenty of high-backed chairs and looks relatively comfortable (the set design, by the terrific Mimi Lien, would fit right into Ivo Van Hove’s latest BAM outing). And the white performers seem merrily oblivious to their confinement as they chat amongst themselves or while away the time on their phones. But it’s still a cage (or perhaps a fish tank)—appropriate, since Claudia Rankine’s Help intends to examine—in great detail—white people.
Back in 2019, Rankine wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about her interactions with white men in “liminal spaces” (read—airport lounges and first-class cabins). Help is basically a dramatization of that piece—the Narrator (April Matthis, the sole black actor) serves as a stand-in for Rankine, recounting many of the anecdotes mentioned in the NYT piece, and then adding in some of the online comments left in response to it. She also throws in some quotes by public figures, ranging from Donald Trump and Ted Cruz to Hortense Spillers and James Baldwin to Amy Cooper (aka the Central Park Karen) and Kyle Rittenhouse to Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Those eleven white actors (White Man #1-9 and White Woman #1-2) alternate playing the characters in her interactions, periodically taking breaks for sections of movement (choreographed by Shamel Pitts) that would fit right in to a downtown experimental dance piece.
To risk a travel-related pun, your mileage with Help may vary. Staging-wise, director Taibi Magar finds ways to keep the action fresh, crucial for text that, on paper at least, reads like a TED talk. And if the choreography is at times puzzling, the cast makes good use of the wheeled chairs, at one point rolling around in a circle, hands clasped together, like in a kids’ game. At another point, the raucous rolling neatly settles into a formation of airplane seats (and 2 by 2 by 2 at that—a subtle reminder that we’re in first class).
But the spotlight here is clearly on Rankine’s text, and this is where Help needs help. First off, the mixing of performed editorial piece with thoughts on those thoughts with other people’s thoughts on material that’s sort of related ends up being a bit of a mess, dramaturgically. “Whiteness” is a fairly broad lens, and Rankine attempts to cover as much of it as she can. To be fair, plenty of those around me (both white and non-white) seemed eager for the meditations on white privilege that Rankine was serving out. But if you read her NYT Magazine piece, or indeed any of the “do the work, white people” texts being bandied about in the summer and fall of 2020, you’re likely all caught up. And what is more, a play that claims to “dig deep” remains frustratingly on the surface, confining itself to clueless white men and other easy targets (remember, it keeps the white folk in a cage).
One anecdote exemplifies this trend. The Narrator (i.e., Rankine’s stand-in) tells us about a time when a flight attendant repeatedly forgot to bring her her juice, while remembering to serve all of the white men seated around her. Her white male seatmate chastises the flight attendant, who promptly serves the Narrator her OJ. The man’s comment that “She isn’t suited to her job” prompts the Narrator to subtly push back; for him, it’s a question of the flight attendant’s incompetence, while for her, it’s about racist microaggressions and white privilege.
Tellingly, neither one stops to consider other possibilities. Since this is a first-class cabin (hello, privilege!), this flight attendant is probably the only one serving this section. Perhaps she’s overworked. Perhaps she’s had a bad day. Perhaps the orange juice is buried in a lower drawer and she’s been able to serve everyone else first because they all asked for a drink that was readily at hand and then a baby was crying and then the pilot needed something and then someone else pushed a call button and…you get the picture.
That socioeconomic status gets ignored is not surprising—foregrounding race (let alone positioning it as the only thing that matters) tends to push class out of view, especially when the one telling the stories is both comparatively well-off and well-educated. But that doesn’t make it any the less disappointing. At another point, the Narrator says (about another encounter) “I wanted to learn something that surprised me about this stranger.” But the Narrator is never the student, and always the teacher (literally—she’s a Yale professor). Her interactions seem driven less by her desire to learn, and more by her desire to prove what she “knows” to be true. When one man says “I don’t see color,” you can almost see the Narrator checking off another square on her White Privilege bingo card.
Even when, late in the play, she has an intimate moment with her husband (like Rankine, the Narrator is married to a white man), she can’t help herself. It’s a scene rich in potential, one where maybe, just maybe, the Narrator will show some vulnerability, or question a long-held belief, or where someone she loves will make her realize something she hadn’t seen before. But no—while this man is significantly more “woke” than anyone we’ve met thus far, he ultimately still has to be reminded about his own white privilege.
As for the title, it’s something the Narrator occasionally deadpans, usually in response to yet another ignorant remark by a white dude. And the thing is, she seems to get a lot of help—from her therapist, her colleagues, her husband, even from the white strangers she seeks out (whether for conversation, debate, or sociological study is up for the viewer to decide). But perhaps because the help she gets is never the help she wants, this refrain keeps falling flat, and not just theatrically. Rather than a sincere plea for understanding and communication, this cry feels like a rhetorical device, a punctuation to her stories designed to encourage a validation of her reality. And while this may engender some terrific social media takedowns, it doesn’t necessarily make for thought-provoking theatre.
(Help runs at the Shed’s Griffin Theatre, 545 West 30th Street, through April 10, 2022. The running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. Masks and COVID vaccine required. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $29-$72, and are available by calling 646-455-3494, or at theshed.org.)
Help is by Claudia Rankine. Directed by Taibi Magar. Choreographed by Shamel Pitts. Original Compositions by JJJJJerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco. Dramaturgy by Robert Duffley. Scenic Design by Mimi Lien. Costume Design by Dede Ayite. Lighting Design by John Torres. Sound Design by Lee Kinney. Associate Director is Dominique Rider. Associate Choreographer is Ashley Pierre-Louis. Music Director is Daisy Peele. Production Stage Manager is David Lurie-Perret.
The cast is April Matthis, Jess Barbagallo, David Beach, Tina Benko, Charlotte Bydwell, Zach McNally, Joseph Medeiros, Tom O’Keefe, Matthew Russell, Rory Scholl, John Selya, Charlette Speigner, Jeremy Webb, and Nick Wyman.