By Ron Fassler . . .

If a play is plotless and devoid of characters, is it a play? It’s a question you might ponder while watching Claudia Rankine’s Help, now in a limited engagement at The Shed in Hudson Yards. Described in the program as a “theatrical work,” it is for the most part a dramatic monologue intercepted by short scenes in which a group of actors, both male and female, speak text verbatim based on actual conversations or public statements from history or current media. Part lecture and full-on wake-up call, Rankine’s background as playwright, poet, and activist come into full play here. Birthed in response to a 2019 New York Times article she wrote titled “Brief Conversations with White Men.” As a result of people writing in after it was published, Rankine engaged over time with a host of men and women about white male privilege, then chose a theatrical format as a bold means to continue the conversation. In her words: “The various white men and women do not hold any single identity throughout the play, but speak with the voices and positions expressed in response to the original article and recent events (including the January 6 insurrection and the global pandemic).”

April Matthis and the cast of Help

By not following any sort of linear plot, the challenge is to bring substance to those voices filtered throughout the storytelling, even when characters are not allowed to grow beyond short bursts of scenes. In addition, the evening’s central figure, identified as Narrator, is more a voice than an actual person (even though she substitutes for the playwright). Since all involved with this production are extremely capable talents, confident in the stories they’re telling, this is purely by design. And yet, even with the distancing this involves, there is still plenty of intelligent and provocative dialogue, aided by a first-rate staging from director Taibl Magar. The food for thought delivered is sumptuous and the issues raised force confrontations of difficult truths. It is surely long overdue that white male privilege be recognized, felt deeply, and dealt with. 

April Matthis in her role as Narrator, a Black woman dealing with prevailing white male dominance in work and society, does a fine job centering the espousing of the playwright’s concepts and ideas. It’s an untraditional acting assignment, in that she comes off more of a host than anything else; a choice that might appeal to others more than myself. It was disappointing that late in the play, when a scene is played out with the Narrator’s husband (who is white), any dramatic heft to Matthis’s performance is diminished due to this information being dropped into events with no set up (or pay off). Yet even with these caveats, there is no denying the stimulating experience Help provides. The full cast are all worthy of mention, so, here they are: 

Jess Barbagallo, David Beach, Tina Benko, Charlotte Bydwell, Zach McNally, Joseph Medeiros, Tom O’Keefe, Matthew Russell, John Selya, Charlette Speigner and Nick Wyman.

Cast of Help

Mention must be made of the tantalizing scenic design by Mimi Lien, which suggests an airline executive lounge complete with plush leather chairs that slide around courtesy of the fancy footwork of the cast, choreographed in various configurations of exciting visual display by Shamel Pitts. Lighting by John Torres, costumes by Dede Ayite, and sound by Lee Kinney are all perfectly in sync—sleek and arresting on The Shed’s wide stage. There is also a score by Jerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco (along with Robert Duffley) that adds effectively to the dramatic texture of the piece.

In refusing to play by established rules of playwriting, Rankine’s is a unique voice theatrically expressed. This portion of its closing speech offers the sort of poetry evocatively expressed in the writing, which is as good a reason as any to go and see it:

The n-word



We are the force in feel.

We’re the emergency in feel.

We feel.

We feel into

The consciousness of our history

without risk of losing ourselves.

We feel into the full potential of a whole self, a whole being.

We hold their names:

The ones past

And passing

And the ones to come.

We feel in all that’s been felt

The sorrow and the joy

The possibility

And the need.

Help. Through April 10 at The Shed (545 W 30th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues). 

Photos: Kate Glicksberg