At the outset of “White,” Philadelphia playwright James Ijames’ funny and relevant race-relations comedy onstage in a Shotgun Players production in Berkeley, a perky blond curator states that she’s going to shake things up at her contemporary art museum: Her upcoming show “New America” won’t include any works by white men.
It rankles her friend Gus, a white artist (making a white painting) she knows from graduate school. Desperate to be in the exhibit, he asks her, “Doesn’t being gay count for anything?” and remains dejected when Jane reiterates, “You’re the exactly the opposite of what I’m looking for. No white dudes.”
At home, Gus’ Asian boyfriend Tanner, an English teacher, isn’t overly sympathetic to his predicament.
But, after “Saint Diana” Ross (the perfect personification of a beautiful black woman) visits him in a dream, in a silver sequin gown to boot, Gus comes up with a scheme. He’ll hire Tanner’s black actress acquaintance Vanessa to portray an artist, who’ll present his paintings as her own, to get him into the show. He tells her, “We’ll revolutionize the way people think about diversity.” Together, they create the artist, called Balkonae, in a priceless scene.
It’s an enticing and amusing setup, opening up continued and necessary conversation about persistent racial inequity and injustice.
The smart production, directed with economy and insight by M. Graham Smith and Samira Mariama Hamid, looks fantastic, too. Set designer Nina Ball created walls representing a museum gallery, which cleverly slide across the stage to reveal Gus’ studio on one side and his home on the other.
All of the acting is top-notch: Jed Parsario as Tanner moves from vulnerable to angry (in a hilarious sex scene, and later, an intense lovers’ quarrel) and Luisa Frasconi gives Jane attractive authority, and the appropriate wit that gently skewers pretensions in the art world.
Adam Donovan nicely gives the less-than-sympathetic Gus humanity, though the opening night audience understandingly groaned when Gus asks why a white man demanding equal rights is always seen as crazy.
Yet the show belongs to Santoya Fields, who, in doing triple duty as Diana, Vanessa and Balkonae, reveals facets of character rarely afforded to black women in pop culture and art.
She strikes just the right note as the fantasy music star and a young actress who, not entirely confident in her ability, blossoms into a vibrant and bold person making a statement, when, at last, someone listens.
Presented by Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 5
Tickets: $25 to $42
Contact: (510) 841-6500 ext. 303, shotgunplayers.org