The Culture Project
(Culture Project Website)
Century Center for the Performing Arts
111 East 15th Street
Presented in association with
We Are Family Foundation
Written by William Hamilton
Reg E. Cathey Julie Halston Lynn Whitfield
Erik Laray Harvey Paul H. Juhn Samantha Soule
Directed by David Schweizer
Scenic Design: James Noone
Lighting Design: David Weiner
Costume Design: David Zinn
Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz
Production Stage Manager: Scott Pegg
Casting: Tara Rubin Casting
Press Representative: OPR/Origlio Public Relations
Production Manager: B.D. White
Executive Director: Allan Buchman
Managing Director: Danielle De Maio
Business Manager: Alyssa Seiden
Consulting General Manager: Jamie Cesa
Marketing Director/Graphics: Brian Michael Thomas
Jennifer E. Wesnousky
Matinee, October 10, 2004
Never have affluent New Yorkers, Brandon and Deborah Beale, been so excited as today, the day of the announcement of whether he or his colleague, Ashley Brown, will be appointed to the position of Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Of course, even in today’s purportedly enlightened society, blueblood Brandon would seem to be the shoe-in over his African American co-worker. And yet, after a five-minute banter in bed in the dark with his wife, a trip to the bathroom and Mr. Beale’s scream reveal that much to his shocked chagrin, Brandon’s skin has turned black overnight. As the lights come up, both the audience and the Beales, played by African-American actors, Reg E. Cathey and Lynn Whitfield, learn that despite “feeling like themselves”, they appear black to the outside world. And, as they poignantly point out that race has just “happened to them,” it is not lost on the audience that such is true for all of us. As such, the stage is set for William Hamilton’s new Off Broadway comedy, White Chocolate,.
Despite Mr. Beale’s initial hysteria, both he and his wife seem to adapt quite quickly to their metamorphoses, and go about attempting to convince their family members that despite their appearance to the contrary, they are still very much themselves. While the psychological effects of many people suffering from even a minor change or blemish, much less the complete overhaul that these characters undergo, would typically be far more far-reaching, their acceptance must fit into the framework of this two hour and fifteen minute play while serving to emphasize the point that despite our appearances, we are who we are. Delighted at how much the Beales still act and sound like themselves (in the actors’ skillful execution of stereotypically high-society voices), Brandon’s sister, Vivian’s, remark, “Close your eyes and you’d never know,” drives home the manner in which we allow ourselves to be influenced at first glance. Vivian did, after all, mistake them upon her entry for the hired help.
When the Beales attempt to explain their situation, Vivian becomes convinced that they are performance artists, hired to celebrate Brandon’s sure appointment to the directorship, and decides to join in the fun. While one may question the taste of her character gleefully dressing in blackface in attempts to “play along” with what she perceives to be some sort of hip, ethnically-themed costume party, the perceptive, racially mixed audience allow themselves to laugh at Julie Halston’s brilliant performance while simultaneously understanding the extent to which her character is far more clueless than callous. While never departing from a light comic tone, all of Hamilton’s characters demonstrate some degree of ignorance, intolerance and hypocrisy, and yet, like most of us, basically mean well.
With the change in Brandon’s skin tone, for example, comes the realization that he should be more socially and racially conscious. But, he still cannot contain his shock or his tendency to fall into racial stereotyping as regards his daughter’s Asian-American fiancé, Winston Lee, portrayed by the likeably subtle Paul H. Juhn. Winston falls into some stereotyping of his own, assuming, for one, that if Mr. Beale went to Harvard, it must have either been the result of affirmative action or a basketball scholarship. While others have accused Hamilton of taking cheap racial shots, he does so deliberately and intelligently to emphasize how much many of fail to realize it when we do the same.
The Beales’ sweet daughter, Louise (Samantha Soule), takes the situation as hard as anyone would, not because of any racial factor, but because of her disbelief about who she perceives to be overbearing and distasteful impostors. Acknowledging the fantastic nature of the story he has written, Hamilton employs Louise’s heartfelt rejection of what could never really happen to establish believability as well as sympathy for both Louise and her parents. Frustrated, among other things, at his inability to convince his daughter that they are her parents, Brandon becomes “sick” of being black, and professes it aloud. “Tell me about it,” agrees his co-worker, Ashley Browne (Erik Laray Harvey), who Brandon attempts to help with an elaborate (and ultimately backfiring) scheme to ensure that it is Ashley rather than he who is promoted to Museum Director. While the other characters’ stereotyping of the newly black Brandon does help to enlighten him to their plight to some extent, he is also influenced by the reality that “Now that I’m black, I couldn’t get it even if I got it”.
Hamilton’s story succeeds in employing stereotypes non-stereotypically to show us that like Vivian, we are all, to some extent, in costume as we go about our daily lives, both with respect to the airs we put on for others and the manner in which we tend towards judging one another from the outside. Hamilton hopes that the audience will learn what Louise seems to upon suddenly seeing her parents as “themselves” again, although they still appear African-American to both the audience and themselves. Race can be, points out the funny, well-acted and well-written White Chocolate, a guise which, while “happening” to each of us, determines to a large extent the manner in which we view and treat others and how we, in return, are viewed and treated ourselves.