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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘It’s a sitcom until it’s not’: ‘White’ approaches debut at Hippodrome

The progressive, comedic play explores serious topics, opens March 29

Nick Bublitz portrays Gus and Chasity Hart portrays Vanessa in a performance of White.
Nick Bublitz portrays Gus and Chasity Hart portrays Vanessa in a performance of White.

Some say art imitates life. For other’s it’s vice versa. But “White,” the Hippodrome’s latest production, looks at it both ways.

The 2018 play hits the mainstage at 8 p.m. March 29 and runs until April 14. 

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner James Ijames, the production combines a contemporary retelling of Frankenstein with a real-life controversy that took place in the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

In 2014, a performance art piece by Joe Scanlan, a white male artist, was featured in the Whitney’s Spring Biennial. The work was not a painting or a sculpture, but rather, a Black female character named Donelle Woolford.

Scanlan created this character with the idea his artwork would be more interesting if someone of a different cultural background took credit.

During a Biennial that featured only eight African American artists out of 103 artists and collectives, Scanlan was widely criticized for his characterization of Woolford and the power imbalances in play. 

The Yams Collective, a group of African American artists involved in the Biennial, referred to Scanlan’s piece in the context of an art exhibition as “a troubling model of the black body,” and ended up withdrawing from the exhibit.

“I was struck by the audacity,” Ijames said in an interview with Alison Scaramella Baker. “I understand to a point the desire to be provocative and push boundaries. I get that part of

the impulse, but I was just so curious about how it would happen.”

Intrigued by Scanlan’s thought process and Woolford’s characterization, he drew from his theatrical background to create a show unafraid of addressing and unpacking the systemic inequalities present in the art world.

Chasity Hart is a 32-year-old singer, writer and actress from Fort Lauderdale who plays three characters in the show.

The protagonist, Vanessa, is hired by a white artist to create an artistic persona and take credit for his work. She and the artist construct the character Balkonaé Townsend, a bold political artist who Hart describes as an “urban queen” and “fabulousness defined.”

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“[Vanessa] is on a journey to find herself and understand her Blackness and embrace it without the views of society,” Hart said. 

Of all the productions she’s been in, the vulnerability expressed in this show is unique, Hart said.

“You’re literally watching somebody go through the journey of figuring out who they are,” she said. “It’s almost like a therapy session in your face, but not the traditional form of therapy.”

Though the material is challenging, Hart said, the play tackles it with satire and surrealist humor.

In the script notes, Ijames added, “This play should feel like a sitcom until it’s not.”

“I hope [‘White’] sparks conversation or makes [the audience] take a look at themselves,” Hart said. “Hopefully it makes them a little bit more conscious of how they engage with people who are different from them.”

Nick Bublitz, a 32-year-old associate artistic director at Orlando Shakes, plays the white artist, Gus. 

“What sets this [show] apart is the way that we’ve approached the work,” Bublitz said. “It’s been very thoughtful and intentional.”

The director of the Hippodrome production of “White”, Ryan Hope Travis, is a 38-year-old filmmaker, actor, theater-maker and writer with extensive experience working in productions. 

However, Travis said he’s never directed a play so unapologetic in its presentation of race, appropriation, class and gender identity. 

“It is rich with innuendo, complexity, inside jokes, unapologetic Blackness and full-frontal confrontation of white fragility,” he said. 

Travis said he is unsure how audiences will react to the play’s message and strong themes. His role as a director is to stand by his actors and prepare them for a cohesive project regardless of the feedback, he said.

“I hope the audience leaves this play looking for a museum to patronize,” he said.

He said his favorite part of directing “White” is watching the slow, but rewarding, progress made during rehearsals, which he compares to watching the special features section on a DVD.

“Starting rehearsal you have this block and the actors start chiseling away at this, and a sculpture emerges,” he said. “I get a chance to see that progress in real-time.”

The play discusses themes about race and the LGBTQ+ community. In addition to featuring profane language, “White” is recommended for audiences 17 and older. 

Contact Bonny Matejowsky at Follow her on X @bonnymatejowsky.

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Bonny Matejowsky

Bonny Matejowsky is a third-year journalism major and a Fall 2023 Avenue Reporter. When she’s not writing, you can find her thrifting or watching Twin Peaks.

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