A Black woman in denim overalls, holding a red plastic Solo cup, stands on the left, talking to a young white man in overalls seated on her right.
Kierra Bunch and Niko Kourtis in WHITE at Definition Theatre. Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Of the two plays exploring race that Steppenwolf has on stage right now—King James and WHITE—the latter definitely stands out for being not only funnier, but more complex and satisfying in its critique of race, privilege, and power. Written by James Ijames and directed by Ericka Ratcliff, Definition Theatre’s production is a delightfully silly yet disturbingly relevant look at the fragility of the white male ego and the power of white gatekeepers, questioning definitions of authorship as it sends up the art world. 

Through 4/10: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Steppenwolf 1700 Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$40.

Gus (Niko Kourtis), a white gay painter, is trying to get his work in a prestigious gallery showing. The curator, Jane (Carley Cornelius), a longtime friend and white woman, informs him that this showcase will not feature “white dudes.” So Gus hatches a plan involving a Black actor named Vanessa (Kierra Bunch) who becomes Balkonae, an outrageously self-confident artist of their creation, with more than a dash of stereotype, who will represent Gus’s art in the exhibition. But as Vanessa gets into her role as Balkonae, Gus starts losing control of his scheme. He turns for support to his Black boyfriend, Tanner (Jonathan Allsop), who is less than accommodating of Gus’s blind spots, and things only go downhill from there. 

Kourtis is wonderfully passionate yet thickheaded as Gus, who sees everything as a reflection of himself, his character a mirror of so many people who’ve denied their discriminatory behavior while in the midst of practicing it. Bunch is transformative as not only Vanessa/Balkonae, but also as a fabulous diva, appearing as Gus’s “inner Black woman,” scrutinizing some of the appropriative nature of white gay culture. Cornelius is deliciously dim as the gatekeeper to artistic fame, and Allsop radiates love and strength as the supportive but direct boyfriend. WHITE does a fabulous job of interrogating respectability politics, the inequity of consequences for one’s actions based on the color of one’s skin, and the long history of fetishization and ownership of Black people’s bodies, all while somehow managing to be a mostly light and hilarious 90 minutes.