Review: “Am I White” at Salvage Vanguard Theater

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(This review is by American-Statesman freelance critic Claire Christine Spera.)

In local playwright Adrienne Dawes’ intense new work, showing at the Salvage Vanguard Theater through Oct. 18, everything is mixed up: the present with the past, reality with the dream world, reason with feeling and, as the play’s title suggests, the very racial identities of the characters.

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In “Am I White” (directed by Jenny Larson), J. Ben Wolfe plays the lead role of bald-headed Wesley Connor, a neo-Nazi terrorist with a dirty little secret, serving time for a failed bomb plot. Inspired by the true story of white supremacist Leo Felton, Dawes’ Wesley struggles to reconcile his identity as a White Order of Thule member with the reality of his mixed-race heritage — his “beige” skin, we learn, is the gift of a black father and white mother.

The 60-minute play keeps a refreshingly brisk pace as the five-member cast brings to life a series of episodes, all tied together with questions of identity.

Wesley’s cellmate, Ryan (Michael Joplin), is an outspoken member of the Aryan Brotherhood whose body is adorned with swastikas. Prison guard Justine (Florinda Bryant), a self-proclaimed “Mexi-black,” constantly questions Wesley’s identification as Caucasian. In contrast to Ryan and Wesley’s prison jumpsuits, when we see flashbacks to scenes with Wesley’s girlfriend, Polly (Katie Van Winkle), she’s wearing traditional skinhead attire of Doc Martens and suspenders. Wesley’s mom, Jade (Cyndi Williams), reminds us of her son, “He’s a very sick man.”

The uncomplicated scenic design (by Ia Ensterä) — consisting of a white square painted on the floor to denote the boundaries of a prison cell, along with two chairs and a barred window high in one corner of the stage — allows for seamless transitions between scenes.

In one moment, just as Wesley prepares to knife a black prisoner who’s giving Ryan a hard time, the scene flows into a flashback to 10-year-old Wesley clutching a knife in his childhood kitchen, confronted by his mother. The white floor plays host to video footage (by Lowell Bartholomee) featuring news reports, TV static and splattered blood, which adds to the effectiveness of such transitions.

In another scene, a minstrel show plays out in a spooky alternate reality. Wesley’s face is painted half black, while Justine has abandoned her prison guard uniform for clothing of an appropriately racist tribal nature. The emcee, of course, is Ryan. To him, the world is simply black and white.

To Wesley, the world is more complicated: Beige.

“Am I White” continues through Oct. 18. www.salvagevanguard.com


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