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27 Jan 2019

Pondering Art and Race: CV Rep's 'White' Sparks the Viewer's Intellect, if Not the Viewer's Emotions

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Franceli Chapman, Anthony Saludares and Paul David Story in CV Rep's production of White. Franceli Chapman, Anthony Saludares and Paul David Story in CV Rep's production of White.

With the show White, the Coachella Valley Repertory Company is bidding farewell to its longtime Rancho Mirage location in the Atrium. In March, the company will move into its new home in downtown Cathedral City—the home of the former IMAX theater.

Artistic director Ron Celona has salted the internet with photos of the re-creation process, step by awesome step, and the new theater will be a dream come true. Kudos to managing director Gary Palmer, board president Joe Giarrusso and the entire company for giving birth to this theatrical wonderment.

As for White: The company offers a theme every season, and this season’s is “a hand full of -isms.” CV Rep never spells out for us which “-ism” is which, but White is a play that slogs into the quagmire topic of race in today’s America; specifically, the play, by James Ijames, tackles race while also examining the eternal question: What is art?

The more one studies art, the more baffling the answer becomes. Think about it: Many artists who were reviled in their time were later celebrated as visionary geniuses, and their works went on to command astronomical sums. Entire groups of artists who were scoffed at later became the pride of the cities that ignored their early work. Artists are often ahead of their time—hence, misunderstood—but sheer talent can often overcome the tastes of the times. Artists, gleefully busting through the limitations, force a reluctant public to grow up and appreciate their innovation. Think of painters Monet, Picasso and Jackson Pollock, sculptor Henry Moore, Alexander Calder’s mobiles, and so on

White tackles another, more-sinister aspect of the art world: popularity. Undeniably, fads come and go in that little universe. The artist who is the rave of the moment can be completely rejected by fickle peers tomorrow as “out of fashion.”

We open the play with Jane, played by Charlotte Munson, the redheaded curator of a big-deal gallery, under the gun to find The Next Big Thing. She decides—or those who pay her salary decide—that there are too many white males behind today’s paintings. Think about it: The field has been almost completely dominated by them for centuries. But she is going to change all that with a new show: She wants to create a “New America” presentation that will “truly reflect” America—in other words, with no white male artists.

Jane visits her friend Gus, played by Paul David Story, a handsome, blond, white, male artist. She admires his work but refuses to include him in her prestigious new show. He is stunned by her reverse discrimination but is helpless to fight it. He expresses his irritation to his partner, Tanner, an Asian school teacher, played by Anthony Saludares, moping that “you’d think that being gay would count for something.”

However, Gus is suddenly visited by Saint Diana, a goddess with great moves and a vague resemblance to Diana Ross, played by Franceli Chapman. Jane told Gus that if he were “black and a female,” he could easily be included in this “New America” show, and Saint Diana gives him an idea to make it happen: Gus remembers a black actress named Vanessa who worked with Tanner, and they contact her to see if she will accept the challenge of becoming the front for Gus’ art. Vanessa, also played by Franceli Chapman, refuses, but then—obviously for plot advancement—re-thinks it and accepts.

They set out to construct the character who will “revolutionize how people think about diversity.” Just dreaming up her new name becomes a whole event; building her backstory and family history is another. How will she walk and talk? What will she wear? What about her hairdo? Much to consider.

Of particular interest is the fact that Gus’ work is largely white in color! (This happens to be something of personal interest, because I actually had as an art teacher a guy who helped start this movement way back when. He painted only in white, but it turned out that white in one area of the canvas was tinged with pink; in another area, under close scrutiny, you could see some blue, or grey, or whatever—his point being that white isn’t really just white. It was actually very thought-provoking. None of this is much discussed in this play, however, lest we become too bogged down in the aesthetics and distracted from the social aspect of the author’s interest.)

You might gather by now that this is a play that appeals to your brain, not to your emotions. You won’t be dragged through a lot of personal feelings, even if the point about color in people, rather than paintings, is somewhat belabored by this otherwise witty writer.

Director Ron Celona has made the most of his workspace with clever blocking (sometimes managing to pose his actors against huge blank white panels, briefly making them into paintings themselves). We look forward to seeing what he will be able to create with the new theater that will at last liberate him from this venue’s rather challenging layout, which even separates one part of the audience from the other.

Art! In theater, in paintings, in our lives … it makes us stop and think.

White is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is no show Tuesday, Jan. 29.) Tickets are $53, and the show is 100 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

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