“I can’t sleep,” Leo, a struggling visual artist, tells the audience at the beginning of Suzan-Lori Parks’ latest play, “White Noise,” onstage in its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
It is Leo who will drive the plot of this drama, the most seemingly realistic of the Parks plays that have received major productions in the area, specifically, “Topdog/Underdog” and “Father Comes Home from the Wars.” Parks is known for upending our troubled American legacy in imaginative ways.
Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) has stress-induced insomnia. When he’s roughed up by a cop for walking down the street while black, that’s the final straw. He wants to feel safe enough to sleep at night. A white noise machine has helped, but now he’s haunted by an endless white-noise hum in his head, an auditory reflection of the state of anxiety in which he — and the other characters, and we too — live.
His solution? To ask his best friend, Ralph (Nick Dillenburg), a teacher and creatively blocked writer, for protection. He wants Ralph, who’s white, to “buy” him, to keep him as a slave for a while.
Ralph just got passed over for a promotion; a non-white guy, whom Ralph believes is undeserving, got the job. Ralph’s girlfriend is Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), a black woman who has her own live-streaming call-in show, while Leo’s girlfriend, Dawn (Therese Barbato), a do-gooder lawyer, is white.
All four are friends from college, but originally Ralph and Dawn were a couple, as were Leo and Misha.
It’s fairly predictable what will happen to Ralph when he agrees to Leo’s suggested 40-day test period. (Remember the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971?)
And how Leo will fare, too, is not surprising.
Less predictable are the ways in which these four young professionals interact along the way, as all four are implicated in this preposterous game.
The scenario is complex, and Parks’ exploration of the insidious effects of racism on all of us is at various times discomforting and thought-provoking.
But as the long two-act play unfolds, and as the characters rage, cheat, lie, betray one another and give in to their worst impulses, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with any of them. And their individual confessional monologues delivered directly to the audience, an overused theatrical trope in any case, doesn’t help.
The actors, under Jaki Bradley’s solid direction, dig deep into their roles, yet ultimately Parks’ drama feels provocative but not especially insightful.
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 10
Tickets: $35 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, berkeleyrep.org