Even as an experimental piece, White Girl’s ideas and actions hang together only loosely, so don’t expect theater in the usual sense. The program notes invite the audience to wander about the stage just before her performance begins, although no one did. Washington appears still and supine onstage as the show begins. Then she assembles pieces of narrow PVC pipes to create prop and even costume pieces, “plays” with clone-like Barbie dolls and makes paper dolls. While the Barbie-like dolls obviously serve as a key metaphor, they almost get overworked.
Washington clearly intends this piece to be personal, and it is. Her artist’s note cites “reflections about self and childhood.” Through pantomime and heavy use of props, set to an odd, mixed-bag soundtrack, she’s essentially a girl growing up and feeling the weight of her skin color and gender. Here’s the catch: she doesn’t speak at all. The score speaks for her.
Washington’s actions are performed against and filtered through an aural lens of recorded life “instructions” from the 1950s: Stentorian voices lecture on topics such as marriage and squeaky-clean skin care and grooming — for white people, naturally.
For a solo actor not to speak is a rather Fringe-y, risky move. But what I found more fascinating was her decision to have some Eisenhower-era, white-bread folks do all the talking. Because for a long time, that’s the way it was.
Although Washington wanted to draw people in, yet the piece felt (intentionally) uncomfortable to watch at times, such as the show’s climax: She transforms herself into the titular “white girl” with those garish feminine artifices of makeup and a long, blonde wig. She’s briefly on top of the world, then all comes crashing down. In the end, she sets herself free with fluid prowess — dancing, at last! — to Nina Simone’s classic “See-Line Woman.” After such sustained tension and discomfort, it was a relief to see her get her groove on.
A highlight is Washington’s extraordinary range of facial expressions: timid, sweet, shocked, pained, proud and beyond. I like her straight-up, no-nonsense title; it immediately covers both race and gender.
Perhaps to more fully appreciate White Girl, some familiarity with certain cultural and Civil Rights luminaries helps — especially Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose famous “Doll Test” was a psychological experiment used as evidence in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case to demonstrate that segregation and discrimination causes pronounced psychological damage in young African-American children.
With so much rich and varied inspiration, it’s not hard to imagine how larger conceptual ideas can overwhelm a smaller show. White Girl certainly puts plenty of ideas forth, but they often felt fragmentary and meandering. While Washington’s artistic choice to only use “canned” text made a point, it also created limitations. On balance, her concepts seemed stronger than their final impact. Although she delivered an admirable performance, somehow Washington’s piece didn’t quite feel fully realized. NOTE: Because some action takes place on the stage floor, sight lines for this lower stage set-up can present viewing challenges.