Left to right: Chris Herbie Holland (Leo), Therese Barbato (Dawn), Aimé Donna Kelly (Misha) and Nick Dillenburg (Ralph) in Berkeley Rep’s production of White Noise. Photo: Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Rep

Happily, Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars) has a sense of humor that ameliorates a bit of the stark, sobering cultural and racial themes of White Noise. For example, the four old friends from college, two white and two black, who comprise the cast, have the same names as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And the instances of wit become necessary, as we learn more about the interrelationships among this apparently smart, sophisticated quartet who engage in a life-changing experiment.

Leo (Chris Herbie Holland), a black visual artist, had been an insomniac throughout his life, until his rich white friend, Ralph (Nick Dillenburg), bought him a white-noise machine. With the machine, Leo can sleep, but he can no longer create. One night while he wanders the streets, hoping for the dream of sleep, he is accosted and roughed-up by white police. At the end of his tether, Leo asks to become Ralph’s slave. In that way, Leo believes that Ralph will have to protect him because he is Ralph’s property and others will respect his status as Ralph’s slave.

Yes, unbelievably, they agree to a 40-day slave contract, and Leo moves into Ralph’s apartment. At first, the two are merely playing the slave/master game, but soon Ralph’s inner anger at being denied a teaching promotion that is given to a minority candidate infects his sensibility, and out comes a sharp-edged slave collar. Other worse indignities follow.

In the meantime, Leo’s white live-in partner, Dawn (Therese Barbato) a lawyer, but “one of the good guys,” as she often refers to herself, has a fling with Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), Ralph’s black girlfriend. The child of two professional women, Misha now hosts a web-based call-in show, “Ask a Black.” In outrageously funny interludes, Misha adopts a sassy down-home accent and persona as she “black-splains” answers to flatfooted white questioners, who pose queries such as, “Why can’t I touch my black friend’s hair?”

Over three hours in length, and ably directed by Jaki Bradley, White Noise moves along at a fast pace, but it could be a bit shorter. It’s the bowling scenes that add to the length and generally detract from the premise. Yes, there are cleverly staged scenes in an empty bowling alley complete with actual sound and sign effects (Adam Rigg, Scenic Designer). Ralph’s absentee abusive father left Ralph a bowling ally fortune, and Ralph and Leo bowled in college. So the foursome often meets at an empty bowling alley to play and talk, but the talk grows desultory during the games.

There’s also the problem of believing the slave/master premise. It simply didn’t ring true for me. It’s a dramatic device, used to great effect to illuminate racial and cultural issues and the corruption of power. Yet, why would Leo, or anyone else for that matter, but himself in such a position of subjugation? And Leo agreed to the concept before Ralph offered to pay Leo’s outstanding student loan as consideration.

And then there is the appearance of a gun during the first act. It’s an old theater cliché that when a gun shows up in Act One, it will be used in Act Two. No spoilers here, though.

The finest sections of White Noise are the four powerful soliloquies, during which Parks’ writing shines and enables the audience to experience the three-dimensionality of her well-drawn characters. It is also where the talented actors deliver their best work.

I’m recommending White Noise for its excellent performances, creative writing, and exciting,  sophisticated contemporary exploration of race relations.

White Noise is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Nov. 10. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...