The world premiere of Claudia Rankine’s Off-Broadway play HELP at the Shed theater opened Thursday, March 24. The night we were there, Rankine was in the audience looking on. Imagine what was going through her mind; what are people thinking, are they processing this – do they see the now? The now is a repeated motif throughout the 105 minutes of this quasi monologue.
If you read her July 2019 New York Times essay entitled, “Brief Conversations with White Men,” and online, “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I asked.” You have the basic script of her play. The piece received 2,197 comments and over 200 email correspondences from people; according to Rankine, “I didn’t know. Surprisingly, I was suddenly in conversation with hundreds of white men and some Black women. Though I couldn’t respond to each person individually, Help became a way to use theater to continue the conversation.” Her methodology for determining the race of individuals with whom she communicated was not revealed.
What started as an editorial piece that garnered over 2,000 hits became a play HELP.
According to Rankine, “Help is a play in which the Narrator inhabits the category of the Black woman to be in dialogue with the structure of white supremacy. As the playwright, I was interested in exploring with various publics our power structure, comprised primarily of white men who ultimately determine all civic possibility.”
In her book Just Us: An American Conversation, she quotes Richard Pryor, the comedian, “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find, just us.” Additional vignettes from this book are woven into the play to supplement the conversations she uses from her plane travels in the essay. In the play, the narrator verbalizes a desire to engage with whites in conversations; however, the character’s body language indicates a disconnect with the people she encounters, creating a sense of thought-provoking irony and tension.
The staging worked well. You are in the southwest terminal online, waiting to board. All elements are present — sterile chairs, sparse décor, fluorescent lighting, and everyone dressed for business trips. The chairs are on wheels and double as airplane seats. That is why the characters’ list has numbers– their number in line. Clever use of the space stages everything from the boarding process to the capital’s attack. You witness the terminal glassed in from the side as you walk into the theater. The cast is mulling around, waiting for their flight and the play to start. Passengers are drinking coffee, staring at cell phones, reading, and just waiting for the curtain. During the play, jazz, avant-garde music, and dance reinforce dramatic meaning. Sound and lighting are effective, and the theater is a comfortable new space.
On the way out, a white male who is good friends with Rankine’s white husband said that the closing exchange between the narrator in the story and her husband accurately depicted the couple’s relationship.
“Help fits within a series of theatrical productions commissioned and produced by The Shed that innovate on the dramatic monologue, a theatrical form in which a character reveals herself directly to the audience. Thus, Help hopes to forge a one-to-one connection with you. So, this play will resonate differently depending on who you are and your own life experiences—knowing that whatever we know doesn’t diminish what we can know,” says Alex Poots, the Artistic Director and CEO of the Shed.
The play is what you make of it. Everyone’s experience is personal and contextual.
HELP! Written by Claudia Rankine
With April Matthis (Narrator), Jess Barbagallo (White Man #7), David Beach (White Man #4), Tina Benko (White Woman #1), Charlotte Bydwell (White Woman #2), Zach McNally (White Man #6), Joseph Medeiros (White Man #3), Tom O’Keefe (White Man #1), Matthew Russell.
Ensemble, Rory Scholl (White Man #9), John Selya (White Man #5), Charlette Speigner, Narrator, Jeremy Webb (White Man #2), Nick Wyman (White Man #8)
Writer Taibi Magar; Director Shamel Pitts; Choreographer JJJJJerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco; Original Composition Robert Duffley; Dramaturg Mimi Lien; Scenic Design Dede Ayite; Costume Design John Torres; Lighting Design Lee Kinney; Alex Poots Artistic Director and CEO; Madani Younis Chief Executive Producer; Directed by Taibi Magar.
HELP at the Shed Theater
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The Shed Griffin Theater
Runtime: 105 minutes No intermission.
545 West 30th Street
Between 10th and 11th Avenues
New York, NY, United States, 10001