The soap opera at the heart of Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop creator Michael R. Jackson’s uproarious new Off-Broadway musical, that gives the show its title and catchy recurring theme song, White Girl In Danger, is set in the town of “Allwhite” and features a story that is “Allwhite”, as the opening number tells us: “But this goes so much deeper than skin / It’s structured from within”. Like the voice of God, the Allwhite writer announces that White Girl In Danger “is filmed for an Allwhite audience”.
As the fun and enticing pre-show “next time on White Girl In Danger” teaser commercials that are projected on screen reveal, three high school senior best friends, Meagan (Lauren Marcus), Maegan (Alyse Alan Louis), and Megan (Molly Hager), are at the centre of this Allwhite story. They are distinguished by individual character traits, such as low self-esteem, rebelliousness, and promiscuity, and united by their ambition to win the fast-approaching battle of the bands with their girl band, Girlwhite, each evoking a 90s pop diva in their vocal delivery; all while attempting to avoid the knife of the Allwhite Killer who is on a murderous spree in the nearby Allwhite woods. They also have to navigate relationships with their soap opera boyfriends, Matthew Scott/Scott Matthew/Zack Paul Gosselar (played with verve by Eric William Morris), who range from kind to cool to pyscho, and contend with their supportive/neglectful/abusive mothers (all three played by Liz Lark Brown).
Meanwhile, the “Blackground” citizens of Allwhite find themselves in an endless cycle of existing in the background of White In Danger, starring as victims or mourners in Police Violence Story Time, or picking cotton and being abused by their master in the slavery show. As Blackground teenager Keesha (Latoya Edwards)—who has begun to question their treatment by the Allwhite writer as “second-class characters”—puts it, they’re essentially there to “suffer and die”, while the Allwhites have their “moment of truth”.
Three Blackground women, the musical’s Greek chorus, who have been cast in the roles of archetypal African American racist caricatures—Florence (Kayla Davion) “in the Sapphire tradition”, Caroline (Morgan Siobhan Green) “in the Pickaninny tradition”, and Abilene (Jennifer Fouché) “in the Jezebel tradition”—attempt to dissuade Keesha from rocking the boat with the all-powerful Allwhite writer. She also receives warnings from her ex-boyfriend Tarik (Vincent Jamal Hooper), a perpetual victim of Allwhite police brutality, who embodies the tropes of a Black “urban” youth character. Undeterred, Keesha is intent on using her “Blackground Girl Magic” to achieve her dreams and is thrilled when she is cast as “the best friend” to the trio of Allwhite teens, even if her new more “meaningful” role could make her the next victim of the Allwhite Killer. Keesha believes that “Blackgrounds matter”, but the Allwhite writer might have other ideas.
As she integrates herself as a student at Allwhite high, Keesha soon picks up on the teens’ priorities, along with their vocal fry affectations, using words and phrases like “mih” instead of me, “fer sher” instead of for sure, ”basec”, and “a-really”. Meanwhile, Keesha’s mother Nell (a magnificent Tarra Conner Jones), who works as a lunch lady at Allwhite high, and embodies “Mammy” character tropes, is concerned about her daughter’s attempt to shake up the status quo and what that might mean for her own role in Allwhite. Cast “in the magical negro tradition”, high school caretaker Clarence (a wonderful James Jackson Jr.) attempts to keep things running smoothly.
As with most soaps, there’s a sense that the plot is being made up as it happens, with each outlandish scene outdoing the previous one as Keesha pushes to centre herself and becomes increasingly ambitious. The resulting air of spontaneity keeps the show captivating and, along with its upbeat, peppy songs, imbues it with an invigorating energy. Running at close to three hours, this is an epic piece, but Jackson uses that duration to build layers and create an impactful rhythm of repetition, such as the refrain of “Did you hear they found another body in Allwhite Woods?” Which, like the news of another mass shooting in America, briefly interrupts daily life, before the action moves on while the characters wait for the next seemingly inevitable murder to happen.
On one level—particularly in the opening act—this is a light-hearted, deliciously unhinged and loving parody of a blend of Lifetime movies, daytime and primetme soaps, and romance novels, mixed in with high school set series and movies like Beverly Hills 90210 and Heathers, that have seeped into our collective consciousness. But there’s also something more complex and troubling bubbling throughout. The world revolving around the creation of television shows put me in mind of the rather prescient 1981 Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment, along with elements of Westworld in the Blackground characters’ self-awareness of their time-loop lives and Keesha’s growing dissatisfaction with hers.
While on another level, Marlon Riggs’ documentaries, Ethnic Notions from 1986 and Color Adjustment from 1991, also echo here. Although Jackson takes a different approach to Riggs, he partly uses White Girl In Danger to reflect on the creation, endurance, and impact of Black characters, both present day and historical, including those based upon racist stereotypes, and how these characters and narratives reflect or distract from what’s happening in the real world, and serve to reinforce white supremacy. As with A Strange Loop—but using a vastly different canvass—Jackson deconstructs the process of writing stories that centre Black characters, written by a Black writer, to be consumed largely by a white audience. Ultimately, there’s a search for a way forward; a future that delivers more nuanced Black characters and a more equal society.
White Girl In Danger is also a satire of performative social justice and the media discourse around racism. It grapples with the recent narrative of American life that has been more dramatic than any soap writer could conjure; referencing episodes including the last few presidential election cycles, Charlottesville, and the January 6th insurrection.
Teeming with ideas, there’s a lot for the audience to take in and process. The show also demands a lot from its terrific triple-threat cast—with actors taking on multiple, multilayered roles—who all deliver. At the performance I attended, Alexis Cofield impressed as the understudy for Keesha, appearing in almost every scene, really driving the piece, while Tarra Conner Jones brought the house to its feet with her incredible vocals in Nell’s powerful 11 o’clock number. James Jackson Jr., who made his Broadway debut last year in A Strange Loop as Thought 2, had me in floods of tears with his spellbinding, searing, emotionally potent delivery of a showstopping monologue and solo, “Centering Myself”, as the musical draws to an end.
Now and then, there is a scrappy quality to both the plot and the staging, in keeping with the “making things up as it goes along” essence of the unfurling narrative in the hands of the mercurial Allwhite writer, and Keesha’s unwavering persistence to change her course in Allwhite. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz brings enough order to make every beat clear, without relinquishing that inherent chaotic energy and keeps things nice and pacy, but never rushed. While Raja Feather Kelly adds to the comedy with his vibrant choreography, featuring a bounty of pop culture references.
Inventive, bold, and ambitious in his approach, Jackson displays real dexterity with his witty dialogue and lyrics, that are playful and biting in equal measure. White Girl In Danger is a wild ride that moves from zany hilarity to being profoundly moving, as it captures the audacity of soaps to suddenly recast lead characters, or pretend a whole season was just a dream. There are evil identical twin sisters, incriminating semen samples, dildo fights, and, of course, lesbians! There’s an exhilarating feeling of this being a living, breathing, work in progress, that doesn’t detract from the power of the production, but rather resonates with and reenforces the musical’s ultimate aim of examining what’s come before in order to forge something new.
By James Kleinmann
White Girl In Danger, a Vineyard Theatre and Second Stage Theater co-production, runs at Second Stage’s Off-Broadway home, the Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street), through Sunday, May 21st, 2023. For more details and to purchase tickets, head to the Second Stage website.
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