Ethnic Theater - Multi-Ethnic
Century Center for the Performing Arts, Manhattan
In a new off-Broadway comedy, "White Chocolate," numerous ethnic groups-Jews, WASPS, Asians, Blacks-get their comic come-uppance. It's a take-no-prisoners situation. The playwright makes fun of every one.
This kind of equal opportunity satire, which targets every group, can be very effective.One need think only of the early Jackie Mason routines. But, alas, "White Chocolate," however ambitious its intentions, never rises to the occasion. Playwright William Hamilton tiptoes around bigotry, with tepid stabs at humor. For example, the Chinese boy is asked whether he'll run a laundry after college graduation, and when he appears offended, his attacker replies, "Solly."
Thus the level of satirical humor.
Yet playwright William Hamilton does have an interesting concept. His two leading characters-a Jewish wife, a WASP husband of colonial ancestry-awake one morning to find they have turned black. As the play progresses, the couple (initially snobbish, insular and self-absorbed) gain tolerance from their experience. No surprise here, but one could forgive this familiar theme if it had engendered a play of stinging wit and sharp-edged satire.
The husband is waiting to hear whether he's been appointed director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wife's very rich Jewish daddy has already donated a wing, thus assuring his son-in-law's appointment. Additionally on hand are the WASP sister-in-law, the daughter of the family, her Chinese fiancé, and a black man also angling for the Met appointment.
There are stereotypes galore in this heady mix. Jews are rich and their daughters over-indulged, Asian students are brilliant and their parents own Chinese restaurants, Blacks are servants or assumed to be. The piece constantly hovers on the edge of bad taste, but is not outrageous enough or witty enough to get away with this. Perhaps the playwright is uncomfortable in this arena.
Discomfort also marks the two leads-Reg E. Cathey and Lynn Whitfield. Though both these black actors have solid acting credentials (judging by program notes), they project no sense of identity in these roles. Moreover, their accents wander all over the place, from Boston's Beacon Hill to New York's Lower East Side to Oxford, England to a never-never-land. The show's redeeming moments are offered by the wonderful Julie Halston, who plays the addled sister-in-law, and Paul H. Juhn, who is a most engaging young Chinese student.
Certainly satire has its place in the theater world, but "White Chocolate" does not deliver the goods.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 5, 2004