Linda Vista’s white male violence

Troy West (Michael) and Caroline Neff (Anita) in “Linda Vista.” Photo by Craig Schwartz. [Image Description: A young white woman with curly hair kneels on one knee at a glass counter full of cameras, wiping it. An older white man sits above her, on a stool behind the counter, talking to her as she wipes.]

Note: This essay contains mentions of sexual assault.

I saw “Linda Vista” last night at Center Theatre Group and considered leaving at intermission. But I’m not writing a review, I’m writing about the strange ways that whiteness manifests itself. I’m not a stranger to how white people embody the violence of whiteness, but seeing an expensive show by myself on a Friday night reminded me just how the affliction of whiteness truly shows up. White people stay wildin on stage, on the page, in the audience, and in life.

The show, like many theatrical productions, is about a terrible middle-aged straight white man who treats every woman in his life like shit. He’s not likeable, he’s not funny, he’s not particularly attractive, and he’s a self-described misanthrope. So, that’s the show. It was well acted, well directed, and well designed, but the content was not particularly exciting. I kept wondering, do the men who engaged in the same gaslighting the lead character did recognize themselves? Do the racist white women see themselves? And does it even matter if their behavior stays the same?

As a former theatre actor and director, I’ve spent too much of my time being the solitary Black face — and typically one of the youngest faces — in the theatre. When I was not in a show myself I would see at least one show a week, and often many more. As I moved toward my BA in sociology and eventually my doctoral program, I found less time, interest, and happiness in theatre . But after seeing Phylicia Rashad act her ASS off in “Head of Passes” by the fantastic Tarrell Alvin McCraney, I decided to jump back in by buying my first ever season pass. Now, back to last night.

I caught myself examining how different my reaction to the show was from this mostly white, very bourgeois, and slightly older crowd’s reaction. Their sensibilities confused me. The corny jokes that opened the show got large guffaws, they sat static as the scene-change music boomed out, and most disturbingly: they laughed at violence. Not physical violence — there was none in this show — but emotional, psychological, and gendered violence.

The three white women and the one Vietnamese-American woman in the show all suffer violence in one form or another from two of the three white men in the show. And the audience laughed. Not that I’m-laughing-only-because-I’m-uncomfortable laugh, also known as the ‘laughing to keep from crying’ laugh. No. It was more like this-is-genuinely-funny-even-though-it-happens-to-people-every-day laugh. And it disturbed me.

What is funny about the boss of a small camera shop repeating the word “penetration” while asking about pleasure in an inappropriate workplace discussion about a man who trapped a young woman and raped her? How did a whole audience chuckle at the two men watching that same young woman and suggesting that she wanted one of them to ‘fuck her silly’? I truly could not understand their reactions.

Tracy Letts clearly wrote many of these lines with the intention of laughter — and that’s a separate conversation — but instead I found myself just sitting very uncomfortably as those around me and across from me laughed at the violence occurring onstage. Violence that mirrors what so many women and folks of varying gender identities face daily. I was not trying to wear some holier-than-though hat, I was merely existing in a very confused state.

I had to ask myself, why are they so comfortable laughing? Not just to themselves, but to everyone. They’re not in hiding, they’re seen. Theatres are only so dark, so even as you watch the performance someone can be watching you. And I openly watched, averting my eyes from the stage and to the audience at the weak jokes and the disturbing violence that elicited laughter. The only way I could process through my discomfort was to think of racial theory.

To sum up part of Charles Mills’ argument in The Racial Contract: whiteness functions on an extreme cognitive dissonance. This idea gives the benefit of the doubt to the majority of white people by saying that they know not what they do. In theory, such a large population of humans cannot consciously enact the violence they have done and the violence they continue to do and live with themselves. Instead, the racial contract of white supremacy makes it so that they do not see their violence as violence, nor do the beneficiaries of whiteness recognize that their privileges are rooted in violence.

All I could think was “wow”. They really don’t get it, and they — as a group, not as individual actors — never will. Not in the U.S., not in the Americas at large, and definitely not globally. To paraphrase Anita — one of the women characters from the show who men harass— ‘It’s harder than it looks, you know? Being a person.’ Whiteness harms billions of people, including those who embody it themselves.