Prairie del’Arte Theatre Company

at Wood Street Gallery

In White African Mask: In Search of the Missing Link, playwright Mary Bonnett seems compelled to make obvious declarations: Black men are capable of being tender, intelligent, and articulate. Street people are not losers, and businessmen are not necessarily winners. She also tells us that people such as the Nazis, early male psychologists, and the Catholic Church have said horrible things about women and people of other races. The point of this banal evening of theater seems to be to force the audience to exclaim, “My goodness, how can people be so cruel?”

That’s a fair question, but Bonnett doesn’t attempt to answer it. Instead she starts off by taking us on a tour through what she calls the “Library Museum of Human Conditioning” to show us unconvincing “exhibits” intended to shed light on human cruelty: a drunk in the gutter, a greedy businessman, an unjustly imprisoned African American. She presents social issues we pondered in high school as if we’d never been exposed to them before. But White African Mask is not only intellectually insulting, it’s dull. Why put a library tour, probably the most undramatic situation imaginable, onstage?

Bonnett furnishes us with a guide of sorts–a sweet, virginal, lily-white young woman (known as Girl) who, for some reason, has come to this library to get an education. The show opens with her (Colleen Leonardi) clicking through a space-age dictionary to learn the names of things and their meanings. “Tribe,” she says, and points a television remote control at the audience. Behind her a man and woman (J.D. Lloyd and Bonnett) in white lab coats, apparently an exhibit, become animated and furnish her with the Webster’s definition. Fascinating stuff, this definition.

Girl’s education is soon interrupted by the entrance of a cute little cocoa brown girl in a flowery dress and white tights (Amber Fentress). Girl asks her probing questions like “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?” only to be answered with a smile and a shrug. Girl very cleverly decides to call the little girl “Little Girl,” and they happily settle in to get an education together.

Some real action soon starts. Girl’s clicker malfunctions. The man and woman begin to have some volition of their own; they furnish her with, among other things, the Catholic Church’s definition of “three kinds of witches” when she asks for the definition of the word “girl.”

Girl gives up and takes Little Girl over to Part II, the “Contemporary Section,” which contains exhibits of a “winner” and a “loser.” The winner is “Robert the Business Boy.” The loser, “Jake the Street Poet.” Jake (Lloyd) tells us about cops beating him up and gets lines such as “You no-good cowpoke. You sold us down the river in a bowl of blood.” Everything Jake says reveals an innocent victim. Everything Robert (Danny Ahlfeld) says makes him evil incarnate. He shares all his schemes for climbing to the top of the corporate shit pile: He studied at the University of Michigan, which made him successful, though it also made him evil. He pledged the best fraternity, got his MBA, met all the right people–kids of senators and CEOs, Junior Leaguers. Such politically correct cardboard characters insult all street people and businessmen.

On to Part III, the “Historical Section,” which contains the exhibits “Black Man’s Past” and “White Woman’s Memory.” It’s almost painful in its insipidity. A WASP woman (Bonnett) tells the story of how she came to be friends with a black man (Robert Teverbough). “He sat on my couch sipping white wine,” she says with an air of wonder. “A soon-to-be actor who acted white.” As if a black man couldn’t sit on a white woman’s couch and sip white wine. What’s he supposed to do, steal the glass?

Gag me.