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White Fright

November 5, 2008

Exploration of self-hating white guy is alternately dope and wack

One of the few interesting entries I've read on the otherwise puerile yet popular blog Stuff White People Like is devoted to discussing the "self-aware hip-hop reference." Owing to its near-unintelligibility, the post sets itself apart from most of the content in Christian Lander's comedic compendium of white, yuppie, American mores such as hummus and the Toyota Prius.

In the post, Lander — a white, L.A.-dwelling Canadian transplant — proposes a "white appropriateness system" of heightened self-awareness as a solution to the problem of how to show an appreciation for hip-hop culture as a Caucasian without committing the cardinal sin of pretending to be black. For example, through over-enunciating hip-hop slang terms like "homey" and "wack," a white fan can tap into rap while demonstrating an understanding of the distance between his sorry white ass and the "real" (i.e. black) thing. But Lander soon stutters when he tries to draw a distinction between self-aware, white hip-hop fans and "wiggers" (a pejorative term for a white person who emulates black stereotypes). Gone is the author's usual flair for summarizing a topic in a single, pithy sentence. The convoluted syntax, mixed-up tenses, and vacillating personal pronouns suggest the author's inability to articulate more complex issues surrounding identity: Making fun of stuff white people like is easy, unless the stuff they like happens to be black.

No matter that Lander isn't quite up to the task of mining the uneasy relationship between whites and hip-hop culture. (Blogging isn't the most obvious format for in-depth rumination anyway.) For with their rap, beat, and move-infused world premiere, Angry Black White Boy, hip-hop theater artist Dan Wolf and his collaborators at Intersection for the Arts plumb issues of contemporary urban identity with more humor, passion, and understanding than Lander achieves with his entire blog. Led by director Sean San Jose, the extraordinary four-strong ensemble cast (Myers Clark, Keith Pinto, Tommy Shepherd, and Wolf) takes our senses and our preconceptions about selfhood hostage with a guerilla narrative about one hip-hop–obsessed white teenager's revenge against white America.

Adapted by Wolf from Adam Mansbach's novel of the same title (the playwright and the novelist share a white, Jewish, hip-hop–loving heritage) the play follows the hilariously ill-fated trajectory of a privileged, suburban teenager toward becoming "the downest white boy in history." When we first meet Macon Detornay, he's 14 years old and trying to hold his own in a Malcolm X T-shirt at a Boston hip-hop conference. Fast forward a few years to Detornay's freshman year at college, and he's proudly showing off his "04-29-92" tattoo — the date of the events that sparked the Rodney King uprising — to his incredulous black roommate, Andre, and Andre's drug-hustling friend, Dominique Lavar. "It was an important day," Macon says gravely. "For niggas in L.A., no doubt," retorts a puzzled Lavar. By the time we're done with Detornay, he's been to jail for robbing white passengers in the cab he drives part-time, become a national media celebrity, and presided over one of New York's messiest and most misguided race riots. Not bad for the son of a pair of "standard-issue white liberals."

Detornay would be a casebook wigger but for the extremity of his hatred for people of his own color. As portrayed with snarling machismo by the compact Wolf, the character is indeed down with the lexicon of hip-hop. He skulks about in baggy pants and hoodies, possesses a Howard-Zinn-on-steroids take on black history ("Fuck John Brown"), says things like "dope" and "peace, bro," and knows how to rhyme. But even though Detornay is "as attuned to signs of black acceptance as a dog is to the scraping of a can opener," try as he might, he can't step out of his pale skin. Whether sticking his tongue out grotesquely in a style more reminiscent of the lead guitarist in Spinal Tap than of any self-respecting rapper, or finding himself — in one of the play's several brilliantly whimsical fantasy sequences — hijacked into performing in an underground production of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Wolf's Detornay is constantly betrayed by his whiteness.

Detornay's constantly oscillating existence is eloquently encapsulated by San Jose's fluid-rhythmic mise-en-scène. If there's one word that could be used to describe this production, it's "kinetic." From the moment that they burst onto the performance space thumping out the words "black" and "white" like they're warding off evil spirits, the actors bounce about with unfettered energy and careening speed. One second, they're popping, beat-boxing, and rapping; the next, they're singing a cappella and making the sort of expressionistic movements that wouldn't look out of place in a postmodern ballet piece. The mélange is as intoxicating as it is unnerving. So much so, in fact, that we're almost able to forgive Wolf and San Jose for not paying closer attention to the dramaturgy. Regardless of the performers' force, Angry Black White Boy suffers from half-time inertia. Rambling scenes describing Detornay's hyped media appearances could easily be cut to help maintain the narrative flow.

The weirdest thing about Angry Black White Boy is that despite Detornay's vividness, one leaves the theater feeling like one barely knows the character at all. Underneath all the rhyming and revolutionary black-versus-white fervor is a gaping, gray hole. I left the theater feeling frustrated. I wanted to know more about Detornay — what forces, beyond an amorphous feeling of white guilt, shaped this postmodern wigger's thinking and behavior. Angry Black White Boy fails to supply satisfactory answers. But perhaps that's just the point. Hip-hop messes with questions of identity. Simultaneously propagating and refuting social stereotypes, it's as much a harbinger of confusion as it is of clarity, as Christian Lander's blog post unwittingly suggests. "Hip-hop is as schizophrenic as the country that made it," the white, Jewish beat-box artist Tim Barsky explained to me the other day. "Artists can't decide whether to mug the world or save it."



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