‘Whitelisted’ by Chisa Hutchinson at the Contemporary American Theater Festival

A fun and spooky mystery about a spoiled white gentrifier.

You know that point in a movie when something scary is about to happen and you can’t help it, you shut your eyes tight, both excited and terrified for what will come next? That’s a hard effect to achieve in a play where wide-eyed closeups and quick edits aren’t an option, but in Whitelisted, a world premiere now playing at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, playwright Chisa Hutchinson and director Kristin Horton achieve that same heart-pounding sense of dread and anticipation.

This show is spooky, y’all. I didn’t know “horror theater of the mind” was a genre, but apparently it is and this is it.

Derek Long as Ryan and Kate MacCluggage as Rebecca in the world premiere of ‘Whitelisted’ by Chisa Hutchinson. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The three shows I saw at CATF last weekend were all good, but Whitelisted was my favorite. There wasn’t a minute in the script that felt extraneous. This is one of those rare instances in theater where all the elements came together for me: good script, good acting, great direction, and seamless design elements.

The show opens in the refined urban apartment of Rebecca Burgess (Kate MacCluggage), a young white woman who recently moved into a gentrifying, traditionally African American neighborhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Rebecca makes her living building dollhouses, so it’s a little unclear how she can afford such a swanky apartment… unless a trust fund is involved. Right off the bat, Rebecca comes across as a spoiled, swanky socialite. She brings home Ryan (Derek Long), a one-night stand who is as superficial as she is. They bond over their mutual love of VOSS bottled water. (All other water tastes like shit, we are told.)

Another trait the white couple have in common is a quick inclination to brag about their “wokeness.” He once dated an Indian girl, he tells Rebecca, while she boasts that she isn’t racist because she voted for Obama “both times” and saw Black Panther. (Whitelisted is a very funny play.)

Mysterious things start happening in Rebecca’s apartment. As audience members, we are privileged to observe the source of these spooky machinations, but to those interacting with Rebecca, she seems a spoiled pest crying out for attention. She has called the police 19 times already with frivolous accusations against her (nonwhite) neighbors so when something actually goes wrong in her apartment, she’s treated like the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

But something is wrong. Something is very wrong.

Rebecca hires Diego Morales, a security guard, to help her install cameras. Through his patient responses to her chaotic ramblings about racial stereotypes, Diego becomes the consciousness of the show. Carlo Alban plays Diego with down-to-earth detachment. The pregnant pauses and deadpan looks he gives Rebecca while processing her remarks are priceless, and a poignant example of the ways people of color have been historically forced to remain silent in the face of white privilege.

Kate Maccluggage’s performance as the spoiled white gentrifier was nothing short of brilliant. The character, as written by Hutchinson, directed by Horton, and played by Maccluggage, is both deeply human and horribly cliche.

I was even more impressed by Maccluggage’s skills when I realized that she was the same actor I had seen earlier in the day in Babel, playing in rep with Whitelisted. If I hadn’t seen her name in both programs, I would never have realized the same performer played both roles, that is how deeply she embodied each character. (Alban was also in Babel and quite good in both shows as well.)

Kate MacCluggage, Derek Long, and Kirby Davis in the world premiere of ‘Whitelisted ‘by Chisa Hutchinson. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The character of Rebecca brings up an important question: Can a show be likable when its lead character is clearly… not? As I eavesdropped in the lobby after the show, I could tell that Rebecca was a turnoff to some in the audience who found her to be “too unlikable.” But the production was just so solid and the story so compelling that it wasn’t a problem for me. As a white woman, did I see elements of myself in Rebecca that made me uncomfortable? Yes. Do I think that raising that awareness among audience members was a goal of the show? Also yes.

I would be remiss to ignore the show’s stellar design elements because they — in particular the gripping suspenseful undertones of the sound design — greatly contributed to the success of this show as a suspenseful mystery. Sound designer Mark Van Hare must have put in long hours this month because he designed the sound for both Whitelisted and The Fifth Domain (another successful suspense story playing at this year’s CATF). David M. Barber’s scenic design, centered around the modern grey-toned interior of Rebecca’s apartment reminiscent of the styles currently favored in upper-middle-class homes, was a poignant statement about gentrification all on its own.

As the show builds to its climax, we finally see the face behind the terror. But who is the real monster? Whitelisted is both a jarring reminder of the harmful impact of white privilege and also a really fun mystery. Two horror stories for the price of one.

Running Time: 120 minutes with no intermission.

Whitelisted is playing in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 31, 2022, at Frank Center 260 University Drive at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, WV. The performance schedule is online here. Tickets ($68 regular, $58 senior, or $38 for Sunday evening performances) are available online.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival program guide is online here and downloadable here.

COVID Safety: Masks must be properly worn (covering the nose and mouth) while inside any building for all CATF performances and events. You will be asked to provide proof of vaccination and a photo ID. The CATF complete COVID Safety Policies are here.


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