'White People' touches on 'unwitting bigotry'
Three-character play opens tonight at Station Theatre
URBANA — At first, Mike Murphy considered the character of Martin that he plays in "White People" likeable.
Then Murphy decided to play the Brooklyn-born high-powered attorney who works in St. Louis as a jerk.
"I changed back because that wasn't working," Murphy said before a rehearsal of the J.T. Rogers play Monday night at the Station Theatre, where it opens tonight.
So now Murphy views Martin, who has a 15-year-old son who's a skinhead, as classist, narcissistic and subtly racist — and "doesn't see anything wrong with that."
In the three-character play, which examines race in America through the viewpoints of three white people, David Kierski plays Alan, a typical young liberal professor of history who lives and works in New York City.
"He's thought through things on an academic level, but something terrible happens to him involving a member of another race," Kierski said. "He then questions his beliefs and concepts of himself."
Shawna Smith portrays Mara Lynn, a housewife and former homecoming queen in Fayetteville, N.C., who has an epileptic son.
"She's stuck in the past but realizes her situation won't allow that. She has to be present for her son," Smith said. "She has her moments when you see different sides of her. Everything she does she really sees as doing for her child."
In the 90-minute one-act (no intermission), the characters, via monologues, address the audience directly. They take turns speaking but don't talk to each other.
Joel Higgins, who directs, said his favorite theme in "White People" is how discrimination might be viewed as a natural by-product of trauma.
"In that regard, it's hard to demonize because it looks human," Higgins said. "There are themes about people facing things they didn't expect or prepare themselves for."
In his 2009 review for The New York Times, Andy Webster wrote, "The play succeeds best in displaying how people can unwittingly exhibit bigotry even when they mean well."
The set, designed by Christina Renner, features three different locations, one for each character.
The projection screen behind Alan will show a scene from Stuyvesant Square, a park in New York. On either side of the screen, white sheets are bunched and draped on the background. The reflected light from the sheets "almost brings out the personalities of the different characters," Renner said.
There will be post-show discussions between the cast and audiences on Friday evenings. Murphy guesses that when people talk about the show they will be careful about the words they use.
If you go
What: The Celebration Company presents "White People," a play about tragedy, trauma and race in America, by J.T. Rogers, directed by Joel Higgins, starring Mike Murphy, David Kierski and Shawna Smith
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 3-6, 10-13, 17-19
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U
Tickets: $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays; $15 on Fridays and Saturdays ($1 discount is available upon request for students with ID and senior citizens older than 61)
Information: 384-4000; email@example.com; http://www.stationtheatre.com