Paul Zaloom at the Flynn: Whiteness and Invisibility

Hayfields, Lake Champlain ValleyLast night I went to the Flynn Space, the small black-box performance space at the Flynn Center, to see the world premiere of Paul Zaloom‘s, White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show. The Flynn was one of the co-commissioners for the piece. Earlier in the day I had participated in a found object puppetry workshop led by Paul; I’ve written about that elsewhere.

Usually Paul’s work  is playful, creative, deeply thought-provoking, and outrageously funny. White Like Me proved no exception, and I found myself laughing my way through the evening.

The show looks at the dark side of whiteness: racism, colonialism, sexism, and homophobia, a darkness that bubbles along just under the surface of contemporary North American culture, frequently, as we have seen of late, erupting in vitriol and violence. The show began with Paul unpacking a yard sale find: a ventriloquist’s dummy that had lain away in a box since the early 1960’s. The dummy’s world is one of unquestioned Eurocentricism, and unbridled racism, as we learn in a lengthy conversation between the dummy and Paul. Clearly, much has changed. Yet, it is equally evident that much remains essentially the same. The conversation, which is really a Prolog of sorts, ends when Paul has enough of the dummy’s overt racism and homophobia (Paul is gay), and carefully folds him back into his box.

A second Prolog, this one quite brief, involves Paul’s discussion of the reasons he created the piece. He explains that upon hearing that by about 2042, white people would be a minority in the U.S., he began to consider what that might mean for him. He also began to deconstruct the mechanisms of white privilege, as they support and undercut his life. The puppet show was the result.

White Like Me, a play on John Griffin’s classic non-fiction book, Black Like Me, is primarily found object theater, although in Paul’s hands found objects frequently truly appear to take on lives of their own. The puppet show consists of 5 or 6 acts or scenes that follow the colonial exploits of “White Man” and his team of high tech henchmen. The decidedly space-age, Buck Rogersesque plot line drive home, in an outlandish, pun loaded way, the deep structural underpinnings of the colonial enterprise.

Following the play, Paul conducted a lengthy question and answer period with audience members who chose to stay. During the discussion, he passed around boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and one of his grandchildren sat on his knee. (There seemed to be a goodly number of family and friends in the audience!) This being Vermont, the whitest state in the country, Paul made many references to the whiteness of the audience, both during the performance and the Q and A. Everyone laughed, as our collective whiteness is both a legendary truth, and a source of much hand wringing and soul-searching.

The problem with these references was that while literally everyone appeared white, at least some of us were bi or multiracial. Of course, eventually I brought that up. Paul, to his credit, acknowledged being taken somewhat aback by the idea. He just hadn’t thought about it, or the likelihood that mixed bloods will be the majority in North America at some point in the not too distant future.  How could he know that invisibility is a common experience among light-skinned people of color in Vermont?

After the post-performance discussion I headed home. I had lots to think about, to consider. The topic of race is hot,  even explosive. Yet, it’s also much more complex than most of us imagine. One truth is that race doesn’t exist, it’s a theoretical construct used to justify colonialism. Another truth is the construct has teeth, and shapes the way we see ourselves and each other. I am grateful to Paul for using his enormous talents to bring humor and humanity to the conversation about race. Thanks, Paul, I’d rather laugh that rage!

4 thoughts on “Paul Zaloom at the Flynn: Whiteness and Invisibility

  1. Great to hear the rising of awareness on the Eastern Gate. Humor makes the medicine easier to take and there’s always a bit of the shadow lurking in the wings or in the audience to make us take note. “There, but for the Grace of God, go I “

  2. “White Like Me” is also a book by Tim Wise. A good one too.

    Years ago, I’d heard that the people of the future will have light brown skin as the ‘races’ mix. History, however, has demonstrated that even when white people are a minority they still hold power. It’s an interesting phenomena, and one I don’t completely understand, but I do know it is complex.

    Good on you for gently educating the performer. Light skin Aboriginal people are very much misunderstood and misrepresented.

    I loved the series “Faces of America” for all the issues you mention above. Great post Michael.

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