It’s a bold move for writer-performer Sidney Monroe Williams to name their DC show Nasty White Folx… and other filth—so bold, in fact, that the Capital Fringe Festival stylizes the play as NWF on their website. Yet the title’s a misnomer: those expecting a confrontation of whiteness will instead find a show primarily focused on Blackness, and the pressures for cleanliness within the community. Though the play’s themes can be challenging, Williams’ performance proves welcoming and achingly sincere.
Much of Williams’ show recounts life stories. Williams explores their childhood in Arkansas—where their grandmother enforced strict cleaning practices and exclaimed “I can’t stand nasty white folks!”—and soon takes the audience to their time in college living among “white crusty punk kids,” and later in time to Williams’ interracial sexual experiences.
Williams is a charismatic, buoyant speaker. They command the stage like a great stand-up comedian, making multiple anecdotes blend seamlessly and building a warm rapport with the audience. Williams’ role as a theater professor is also evident when they ask audience members to share their own life stories, which they weave into the show skillfully.
The research in the show can overwhelm the production. The play’s middle section analyzing literature and social media felt like a dramaturgy session instead of a piece of dramatic storytelling. Much of the show relied on interviews and voice messages, making me wonder if an audio format would’ve served the story better (NPR’s Code Switch played in the pre-show, and having worked on that podcast, I can confidently say Williams could craft an excellent episode). Fixing technical issues, like making the voice messages louder and having a completely blank surface to project videos, would help the performance as well.
Similar to Williams, other Black scholars have written about cleanliness (and filth) in the Black community. In her book Funk the Erotic, L.H. Stallings proposes the idea of “funk” (as a smell and mood) as a creative tool, writing, “Funk produces alternative orders of knowledge about the body and imagination… predating empires of knowledge.” I’d love to see Williams take up Stallings’ challenge, and abandon the “empires of knowledge” people are familiar with (close readings, analysis, discussion) in favor of the “alternative orders of knowledge” that performance can offer: rhythm, ritual, movement, haunting. Nasty White Folx is already intellectually rigorous and beautifully performed. I’d love to see its structure reach the messiness and provocation of its subject matter.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Performer: Sidney Monroe Williams
Composer: Rhythm Science Sound
Age Appropriateness: Appropriate for adults only
The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.