New York

Laurie Carlos

Baca Downtown

White Chocolate travels the vicissitudes of memory, through stories handed down for generations and old songs that bring back a childhood. Writer/director Laurie Carlos structures the piece like a song, with recurring refrains instead of a story line. The subtext that emerges is one of racism imprinted on personal mythology. The title may refer to the way some white people appropriate what’s black or to the way some blacks try passing for white. Carlos always writes ambiguity, mutability, possibility into her work, as if mere facts just can’t evoke the ghosts.

Carlos plays the central character “Lore,” and around her move a cast of female family members. All of them, including the last slave before freedom, and the last African before the passage, recreate the ambiences they lived in. In Lore’s case, that means the Lower East Side where she plays with her sisters, Tony and Tiny. “Clap hands clap hands till Daddy comes home,” is one chanted refrain in this piece dedicated to Carlos’ father. Through much of the performance the characters don’t interact dramatically. For example, Lore occasionally speaks of wanting to see a man’s picture: “You took the pictures of my husband. You have them,” but who that “you” might be is never clear, and the other characters ignore her complaint. Often they seem to inhabit separate worlds, only to unite suddenly in a dance. These choreographed moments, the ethereal score, a strong lighting design, and the characters’ sharply etched personalities all work to balance the free association in the script.

Cut in at intervals is the ongoing story of Tony and Tiny’s trip back to Africa by way of Rome, where they get marooned because of a ticketing error. They think the airline is giving them free accommodations. Not so; the airline only picks up the tab after deciding they’re “Americans who don’t speak Italian.” It’s another example of the capriciousness of a fate determined by one’s racial or national identity. Carlos used a bit of nontraditional casting to make the point another way: the only white woman in the cast plays the slave ancestor. Altogether dreamlike, White Chocolate is ultimately a comment on how one constructs an identity when so many clues to it have been distorted or written out of history.

—C. Carr