Racism has its own proscenium. Notice the mosh pit, the curtains, the spotlights, and, above all, the disgust upholstered as disagreements. Since the return of live theater (praise be!), a number of Black playwrights have taken up the workings of the white gaze. In different ways, they have exposed racism—especially its character-warping and often-fatal effects—as well as its too-long-to-list aliases.
There was Dave Harris’s Tambo & Bones, a meta-minstrel show that blowtorched the racist underpinnings of show biz. Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, depicted a Black actress chafing against the pasteurized racism of a white director whose mind (as Virginia Woolf once said of Mr. Ramsay) seemed permanently stuck at Q, unable to arrive at R. In Charly Evon Simpson’s absurdist allegory sandblasted, Black women literally fell apart, losing their limbs like quarters and cowering from connection. Joining the rhizome of plays about racism and its discontents is Help, which ran at The Shed from March 15 to April 10.
Claudia Rankine, who wrote Help, is our preeminent poet and phenomenologist of Black pain and the “white glance.” If the white gaze racializes a body, blocks it from being fully at home in the world, and meretriciously structures its very way of relating to other bodies, the white glance, then, is its atmospheric antecedent. And this glance is part of what Rankine calls the “racial imaginary,” “what reigns invisible behind” the white gaze. For years, Rankine has been pressing on the visible bruise of that glance—evoking what it feels like to be mocked, doubted, scorned, surveilled, even murdered, all because of the hue of one’s skin.
It’s a Sisyphean task. Her An American trilogy is comprised of three works—Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), and Just Us: An American Conversation (2020)—that serve as an archive of this nation’s reification of race and its disastrous consequences. The books are image-dense and generically fluid, blending poetry with episodic, essayistic entries on the different frequencies of Black life. They are all, to borrow from the scholar Saidiya Hartman, “beautiful experiments” in being, improvised in the face of forces determined to annihilate it.
For the past several years, racial “progress” has often seemed to move to the herky-jerky rhythm of two steps forward, one step back. It’s a move that Rankine mimics in Just Us, literally and thematically the heaviest book in her trilogy. The book’s “main text” appears on odd-number pages, while footnotes, fact checks, and ancillary images appear on even-number pages. The reading experience is haptically hectic. (In interviews, Rankine has said her rationale for including footnotes and supplementary material was to dramatize how the mind is always “living in archives” and how we self-edit even as we speak.) Three years into the pandemic, isn’t this cadence—moving fitfully forward and being pushed back—one to which we’ve all become somatically attuned?
Given its profusion of intertexts and images, it seemed only a matter of time before one of Rankine’s American books was transformed into a play. Enter Help. The play-poem has one foot planted in Rankine’s scholarship and another in the contemporary moment. It gives a third life (or is it an afterlife?) to Just Us, borrowing liberally from the book and extending it in important ways.
Originally, the play was set to premiere in 2020, the same year Just Us was published. But like so many things, it ran up against the buzzsaw of COVID-19. So, The Shed pivoted to a different format, releasing a 45–minute film, directed by Phillip Youmans. November deploys five Black female actors, who each modulate different sections of the monologue. Questions from the film have lost none of their urgency in the intervening years. “Why do I have to die in order for you to live?” asks one of the narrators, commenting on the needless deaths of George Floyd, Renisha McBride, Breonna Taylor, and so many more Black women and men. “Was my total invisibility preferable to a targeted insult?” asks another.
The film’s questions wheel on one after another; the actors take turns standing on a stage bereft of anything but the light from a few ponderous chandeliers. November seems to proffer an answer to a Rashomon riddle about race: what kind of stories do you get when you deploy five different narrators to talk about the white gaze? The answer: pretty much the same wearying story. Such, the film reveals, is the blunt force of that gaze.
Several moments of the film should also be familiar to readers of a viral New York Times Magazine essay by Rankine, in which she attempts to unbrick white privilege by asking white men directly about it. One of the narrators in the film, a surrogate for Rankine, recounts the experience of having a white man blithely cut in front of her in line to board a plane. Another white seatmate complains to her about his son being denied early admission to Yale, chalking it up to his inability to “play the diversity card.”
While the film November had the bones of a great play, it was too compressed at times. What worked well in the book—verso and recto pages building a sine wave of momentum—worked less well in the film, as scenes of men playing basketball, swimming back and forth, or getting their hair cut, achieved a distracting simultaneity with Rankine’s spoken text.
Help deftly picks up where November left off. It helps that Help is almost twice as long as the film. November started off clear and strong but lost focus towards the end, as if making its way down an eye chart. Help has a clear sense of its vision from beginning to end. What it offers is essentially an immersion therapy for anti-Black racism.
For years, Rankine has been pressing on the visible bruise of the white glance.
The play-poem is even more taut than Just Us. In just under 100 minutes, director Taibi Magar retains the most piercing questions from the book and makes space for pockets of silence as well as reenactments of ignominious moments from the annals of recent history, like the January 6 Capitol riot. As the script notes, the play-poem’s title comes from a line in Macbeth: “For that I saw the tyrant’s power a-foot: Now is the time of help.”
Whereas November made use of five different narrators, Help fuses them into one, played with steadfast sensitivity by April Matthis (who also starred in November). Matthis’s Narrator springs out onstage in a green jumpsuit and introduces herself, bouncily, as “a representative of my category—the approximately 8 percent of the U.S. population known as Black women.”
Of course, she’s not just that. If you’re familiar with Rankine’s background, you’ll know that the narrator is a polymathic critic, writer, and professor at a prestigious university—and Matthis perfectly nails her outward unflappability, even when dealing with the most incorrigible interlocutors. What Paul Klee said about painting applies with equal force to the Narrator: she’s in the habit of taking lines out for a walk, engaging both friends and strangers in uncomfortable conversations about their white privilege and prodding them to examine some fossilized assumptions. One of the things she demonstrates is what it’s like to be an insurgent character in your everyday life.
The opening act takes place in the “liminal space” of an airport. The Teflon-smooth set is by Mimi Lien and the stage is bare, except for a potted plant, a trash can, and an ensemble of eleven white actors. All are seated in blue rolly chairs. The Narrator is initially separated by a wall of windows from the other characters, upstage, waiting to board planes. The white actors look a bit like trapped animals in a zoo; all are dressed in business camouflage and mindlessly paw at their phones or flip through magazines. As Help begins, the Narrator—Rankine’s stand-in—begins to rattle off a list of “N” words that have been used to describe her.
She is interrupted by disgraced mansplainer-in-chief Donald Trump: “Look, let me tell you something: be nice. Don’t be threatening.” This is delivered in the familiarly creepy sibilance of an oleaginous bigwig reciting a nursery rhyme, but the resemblance to the ex-president ends there. There’s no cotton candy combover, and he wears a normal-length tie. In any case, Trump quickly shimmers into the background, yielding the stage to a succession of other white actors, who ventriloquize Mitch McConnell, Brett Kavanaugh, Elon Musk, Richard Sackler, Kelly Loeffler, and Ann Coulter, to name only the more infamous individuals.
Much of what passes the lips of the white actors is taken verbatim from the news, and the words are a mixture of sere and searing. Some of the contemptuous statements still shock. But others—like a rant about the influx of immigrants working in restaurants—feel dated. When they aren’t inhabiting Trump’s cronies and right-wing blowhards, the white actors take on the makeshift identities of ordinary citizens—your Karens and Kens who casually condescend to the Narrator or barely register her presence. “Don’t essentialize yourself,” says one white woman. “You’re, you’re … what’s your name again?” asks a bumbling white man. Help, comes the Narrator’s refrain. And this, of course, is the title of the play-poem.
In encounter after encounter in Help, Rankine shows us the white glance at work. It is this that enables a white man to skip ahead of the Narrator in line for a first-class flight, to offer a non-apology, and joke about the mix-up with his white friend. The Narrator’s therapist (played by a white woman) adds vinegar to the wound: “You are allowing yourself to have too much presence in his imagination,” she says—failing to recognize that she herself has a lot to answer for.
“Help” occupies itself with the problem of the white glance and anti-Black racism, yet, as an Asian American woman, I couldn’t help feeling pricked by many of the sleights tossed off by her white characters: I’d also heard many such racist remarks. (America, as Rankine has written elsewhere, has long been invested in “seeing race as a white and black affair” and “fails to extend to other people of color an authentic fullness of experience.”) To be a person of color is to thread our way through a minefield of such macro- and microaggressions each day. The constant vigilance can be exhausting; sometimes, rather than letting them pass by, it’s just easier to let such aggressions blow up in our face. Something like this happens when the Narrator decides to stop “accommodating white people, their lives, their lies, their lines” and instead asks them “about their love affair with my death.”
On one flight, she upsets the applecart of etiquette by asking a stranger about his white privilege. Is he ever followed in stores or in public spaces? We, of course, already know the answer, but she asks anyway “because I wanted to slow down a dynamic he benefited from so we could see the same things at the same time, exist together in the same reality.”
The Narrator is remarkably even-keeled for the duration of her role as race whisperer—maybe too even-keeled at times. In one conversation with a fellow traveler, she reflects that “I didn’t want our historical positioning derailing our already strained chat.” In Just Us, however, the line reads: “I didn’t want our historical positioning to drown our already shipwrecked chat.” Same point, but the softened language in Help delivers less of a charge.
It also raises a question: does Rankine think our national discourse on race has righted itself from “shipwrecked” to merely “strained”? Or have I fallen into the metonymic trap of seeing these characters as categories? Can they be both? Help is a cat’s cradle of such questions, and I felt—still feel—in no hurry to unravel them.
Shamel Pitts’s choreography is marked by vivid tableaus that swell the set with portentousness. In one sequence, red lights flood the cube as actors scramble to prepare for an emergency. Just before this, we are treated to snippets of Barbara Walters predicting the likelihood of civil war. In another, the white ensemble performs a ritualistic dance to celebrate “The Kingdom the Power the Glory.” It’s about as awkward as watching the cast of Billions have a go at ballet: director Magar should have taken away our seat cushions and forced us to sit on folding chairs.
I won’t give away the ending, only to say that it capsized me. Where the book was a ballast for my emotions, Help threw them into a blender and left me a liquefied mess—as it should have.
There’s something overwhelming about the insistent popping of plosives, those sounds that are made by restricting the passage of air: as in “beating,” as in “police,” as in “help.” (The white actors throughout offer a contrapuntal chorus of fricatives, frequently evoking their “feelings.”) When the ensemble links up to sing “Help, Help,” the incantation is a way to hail a (largely) white audience. This, after all, is a demographic that has historically choked off possibilities for those deemed chromatically and constitutionally inferior. Help, one could say, is a monologue stealthily scored to the breath of Black people.
While watching Help, my brain kept swerving to an exhibit I’d seen moments before, also at The Shed. A few floors below the theater, you can experience Tomás Saraceno’s Particular Matter(s), a sensory installation that invites small groups of people to lie down on two 95-foot–wide cobwebs in a darkened room. Once you’re horizontal, there is a sound—which I can only describe as the mating cry of a microwave—that ricochets around the room for eight minutes, pinning you and your limbs to a vibrating structure in midair. It’s profoundly mind-scrambling; not the least of your worries is that you will accidentally drop your phone (encased in a loaned pouch) or a shoe through a gap and seriously injure someone on another net several feet down.
In retrospect, the moment felt like a literalization of what Rankine calls “remaining in the quotidian of disturbance.” As she notes in Just Us, staying “in the hold” of that disturbance is one “way of staying honest until another strategy [for dismantling racism] offers a new pathway.”
For a visceral sense of that disturbance and of our cobwebbed connections to each other, go see the exhibit. And then go see Help. Both burrow you in darkness. But if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find a new equilibrium.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.