When playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her Tony-nominated play, “Topdog/Underdog,” premiered her newest work, “White Noise” at The Public Theater in 2019, she set a key scene in a bowling alley.
However, upon revisiting the play before its London premiere last year, Parks changed the setting of that scene to a shooting range, a modification that shifted the tone in a much more powerful way.
That scene remains in Studio Theatre’s production of “White Noise,” and it’s one that director Reginald L. Douglas feels is important to the story and he was excited to bring this story back to the American stage.
“Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the queens of the American theatre; her work is bold, audacious and always surprising, so as a director, it’s a thrill to play in that theatrical playground,” Douglas says. “I’m really interested in plays that look back in history in order to better understand our present.”
“White Noise” tells the tale of four thirtysomethings — two Black, two white, in a not-at-all post-racial world. It starts when Leo, after a violent police altercation, proposes an experiment that will uncover long-kept secrets and simmering tensions between his college friends. That happens when Leo proposes giving up his agency and becoming a slave.
“I love plays that take moments from history and shake it up, and ‘White Noise’ does that,” Douglas says. “It’s a play that’s a very modern flavor on what slavery was and means, and how the legacy of that period still resonates today.”
Even though the subject matter is heavy, Parks tells the tale with sharp, biting humor and thrill.
“It’s kind of a bullet of a play that pierces you and shocks you and surprises you,” Douglas says. “That to me is the best kind of theatre.”
RJ Brown, who plays Caleb in the Netflix hit, “13 Reasons Why,” portrays Leo, and he’s joined on stage by Katie Kleiger as Leo’s girlfriend Dawn; Tatiana Williams as successful live stream show host Misha; and Quinn Franzen as tenure-seeking professor Ralph.
Brown, who is from Norfolk originally, had a friend who was in the original Public Theatre production, so he was already familiar with it before auditioning. Still, after reading the script, he saw there were big differences and he liked what he saw.
“My character is seemingly trapped and wanting freedom, and the only way to be free is by going through a rough patch to be free on the other end,” Brown says. “My character is at his wit’s end, looking for an extreme solution.”
Although Brown hadn’t met any of his cast mates before working on this production, they have turned into a tight group of friends since rehearsal, with three of them living in the same building and the fourth just a block away.
“The show is quite agitating and jarring, but to be able to hang out together as the four of us, it helps us show the friendship is real in their lives too, which is nice,” Brown says.
Douglas adds that the thing about “White Noise” is you need four actors who have intense craft, but equally intense charisma.
“We hit the lottery with these four,” Douglas says. “They are a dream ensemble because they bring such nuance to these roles and make these characters so deeply interesting and bring likability, so the audience leans in and wants to be their friend.”
A play like “White Noise” will both entertain and enlighten, and encourages people to think about their own friendships and own connection to history. Brown hopes discussions about this will help people treat one another with more fullness of empathy and become even better friends.
“I want audiences to understand Leo’s plight and where he’s coming from and walk away with a greater understanding of what Leo represents, which is a Black perspective in America and how friendship can seal that,” Brown says.
Douglas adds that one of the best things you can offer a friend is the ability to be yourself, and this play is honest and reflects on how best to do that.
“White Noise” is set to run through February 20.