Review: The DNA of some awful folks sink Berkeley Rep’s ‘White Noise’

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Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) and his girlfriend Dawn (Therese Barbato) discuss a traumatic incident in “White Noise,” running in Berkeley through Nov. 10th. (Alessandra Mello photo)

“I got millions, I got riches buildin’ in my DNA
I got dark, I got evil, that rot inside my DNA
I got off, I got troublesome heart inside my DNA
I just win again, then win again like Wimbledon, I serve” 
– Kendrick Lamar

In the viciously powerful anthem “DNA” by Pulitzer Prize-winning artist Kendrick Lamar, he firmly explores the duality that exists for a black man in America. In these lyrics above, Lamar lives in a very muddled place. A wildly successful artist in the rap genre, Lamar acknowledges all that he has earned based on his sheer talents and hard work, but that doesn’t erase the demons he lives with and the danger he is capable of.

Fellow Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ play “White Noise,” playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Nov. 10th uses “DNA” as a storytelling device to pass time, and it is a brilliant touch. The entire song is not only full of intoxicating beats and critical transitions, but also features lyrics that are electrifying, raw and visceral.

Unfortunately, Lamar’s highly varied pièce de résistance is the most nuanced thing in this production.

While we listen to the song slap on rich, sharp speakers, we see a character we’ve met – a visual artist named Leo (Chris Herbie Holland), who has been damaged by an incident that has taken away his ability to sleep, and by virtue of fatigue, his ability to do his art. His white, lawyer girlfriend Dawn (Therese Barbato) wants to see him move on, but also drops a few microaggressions on him, and has a curious response to an even curiouser marriage proposal.

Another mixed-race couple, friends of both Leo and Dawn, have their own issues. Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) is a young professor smarting over being passed up for tenure while his girlfriend Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly) spends her time running a livestream of her show “Ask a Black,” and pronounces it to sound more like “Isk a Blick.”

All of this premise has potential yet is still not terribly exciting, and makes for a production that rings hollow. Director Jaki Bradley, on a pragmatically functioning and pretty set by Adam Rigg that features a bowling ball retriever, does what she can with material that darts all over. Adding to the story are some nice video designs from Alexander V. Nichols.

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Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) is comforted by Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly) after losing a promotion. (Alessandra Mello photo)

The play really gets going as the couples come together for bowling night, where Leo floats an idea for an experiment based on his traumatic incident. What if he sold himself to Ralph for 40 days as his slave? For Leo, it’s a critical experiment, but more importantly, it gives him some serious clout because he is now owned by a white guy. I mean, who would dare mess with a black man connected to a white man, someone that could tell racists, “Hey, don’t mess with him – he’s with ME.”

It’s all so preposterous, but Leo is dead serious. He has a contract written up, Dawn has a notary ready to go, and that’s it. The friends have serious reservations about this, there’s plenty of handwringing and pained looks on their faces. But they move forward anyway, and on the way to Toleranceville, something strange happens – Ralph starts to enjoy this owning a person thing way too much. Why?

Well, probably because he’s a racist, pernicious piss-ninny, that’s why. And he always was, but just needed the perfect opportunity to bring it out. And man, did he ever take advantage of such an opportunity.

At this point, what started off as an inane premise cascades into a place where you are watching four horrible people try their damndest to out-horrible each other. We know that things are coming to a head not necessarily because of a thrilling march towards the eventual denouement, but because big slashes are put through a large wall calendar, inching us closer to day 40.

The play’s fatal flaw is these awful humans, whose infidelity would make a gigolo blush is combined with backstabbing that would make Brutus blush. Only Misha, who is well-aware of how she chooses to control her own narrative as a black woman and expresses herself in one of the play’s better speeches, has anything close to a redeeming quality, which is reaching a bit. But the others are just so beyond hope that it becomes wholly tedious to watch, with the second act feeling every ounce of its marathon run time. Ultimately, the play collapses under the weight of its own ambitions.

By the end of the entire piece, we learn very little and feel even less. And unfortunately, we can recognize the problem that permeates these folks – there is some serious sucker shit inside their DNA.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “White Noise”
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jaki Bradley
The Word: A premise that has potential for intrigue, but ultimately is sunk by the awful people we don’t care about.
Stars: 1 out of 5
Through Nov. 10th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA
Running time: Three hours with one intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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