Theater Review: Paul Zaloom’s “White Like Me” — Madman on a Mission

It’s the wild mind of puppeteer Paul Zaloom that’s really on display here.

White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show by Paul Zaloom, with Lynn Jefferies. Presented by Puppet Showplace at Tower Auditorium, MassArt, 621 Huntington Ave., Boston, MA, on October 21 and 22.

A scene from "White Like Me." Courtesy of Paul Zaloom.

A scene from “White Like Me.” Courtesy of Paul Zaloom.

By David Greenham

Paul Zaloom may be a madman in the world of puppeteering,  but there is a method to his madness. He is not your usual fly-by-night zany. The Obie award-winning artist has garnered four NEA Fellowships, three Jim Henson awards, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Zaloom was among the early members of Bread and Puppet Theater, and as a solo artist he has created 15 shows in which he fearlessly tackles one social issue after another. Put another way: he had to rein himself in to play the wacky scientist Beakman in the Emmy-winning children’s television show Beakman’s World.

His latest creation, now on tour, is White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show. In the mainstream media you will occasionally hear the grievance that in our age of political correctness the story of white people is being overlooked. The claim usually comes from conservatives, often in panicked response to complaints from minorities. For example, it wasn’t African-Americans who — in response to the spate of high profile deaths of black men and women — came up with the hashtag All Lives Matter.

Well, White Like Me comes at you with a revelation that could change the issue of race in America. In 2042, we learn, whites will become a minority race in the US. If you’re white, like me, you may not have seen that one coming. But lo and behold, it’s nearly here. Luckily for us, Paul Zaloom has come around to remind us of the good old days – the days when America was great, I suppose. And he’s brought a cast of hundreds to tell the story of our oh-so-great whiteness. His performers include hundreds of small toys, iconic little found objects, a hanging white beard, and even his hands. This edgy satire is part science fiction, part social commentary, and a whole lot of charming showmanship. It makes for an enjoyable and occasionally pointed 80 minutes or so.

Zaloom stages the action on a small puppet theater: a video camera is aimed at the tiny stage and the images are projected on a large screen. The set-up: White Man – in the form of a small white astronaut toy – is sent hurtling through space from the planet Caukuzoid, which is (of course) where Caucasians come from. This man – our hero – eventually lands on a blue planet where life is calm and serene. The peaceful land and beautiful blue sky are lit by a gorgeous sun (played marvelously by a rubber fried egg hung on the blue backdrop). White Man immediately becomes the master of all he sees, of course. When those who are not white come marching along (a team of green alien toys who play many roles, including servants and gardeners), White Man, thinking of his self-presevation, is forced to dispose of them.

This displeases God. God is really the only other major character in the piece. He takes several deliciously sardonic forms in the show. At first, He’s just a white beard dangling above the world of White Man. Eventually, he visits as a Howdy Doody doll, a flailing rubber octopus, a whirling rainbow-colored slinky, and even a handmade dream catcher, possibly made by a child using two sticks and some yarn. He understands the plight of the bedeviled White Man. God makes his perspective clear: “Hey, I’m a minority too. There’s just one of me!”

White Man eventually settles into his new home – a trailer topped with a gigantic satellite dish (a large silver metal vegetable steamer). There he lives with his lovely tomato pincushion of a wife, who has a pair of eerie, disembodied arms. She can be gentle and kind, and then, suddenly, turn into a ranting, angry shrew waving her detached arms about furiously. White Man, now portrayed by a teapot, becomes “steaming mad.” They’re both infuriated by what they watch on television: a black plastic purse with a rectangular hole cut in it that has a stuffed animal shouting at them. You guessed it: the stuffed animal is a fox.

Eventually an ally arrives: a small metal piece of drain pipe – Joe the Plumber – and he confirms that, in fact, White Man should be angry with what he’s hearing about what’s going on in the world from the trusted “truthful” TV news source.

But God intervenes again and tells White Man that he must win over the “others” in his midst. White Man must learn to be philanthropic, empathetic. White Man is skeptical of this commandment, naturally, so he only pretends to be generous. And when a tornado sweeps through and White Man loses everything, God suggests that maybe White Man should try being a good friend and citizen in his new land. White Man – by this point portrayed by a He-Man action figure – isn’t so good at being neighborly. Life as a minority, it seems, is going to be pretty tough for White Man. We are going to have to face a difficult reality: come 2042, white people might have to – sigh – get along with those who are different.

Paul Zaloom and puppet in "White Like Me." Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Paul Zaloom and puppet in “White Like Me.” Photo: courtesy of the artist.

White Like Me: A Honky Dory Puppet Show is generally silly, sometimes over-the-top, and blatant as white bread. But along the way, the show makes strong points about prejudice, cutting to the heart of our fears and fantasies in hilarious ways. For example, one of the most engaging moments of theater I’ve seen in a while is when a disembodied, dirty rubber hand feels up the chest and crotch of our White Man. To make our voyeuristic view of the desecration clearer, the small He-Man figurine is replaced with a very large He-Man figurine — so every creepy touch is visible. It’s a very memorable and disturbing moment.

But it’s the wild mind of Zaloom that’s really on display here. How does he remember all the characters and the voices and the little nuances of each section of the story? Well, to tell the truth, sometimes he doesn’t, so in addition to narrating and playing all the parts, he also fills us in from time to time on how the performance is going. When something goes awry – which is inevitable – he comments on that snafu as well. Obviously, the relevant topic and playful story line is important, but it’s his wonderful commentary and “progress updates” that plant us firmly on “Zaloom’s World.” He makes this slapdash exercise in surrealistic puppetry consistently fascinating and amusing. The next character might be played by a giant doll head, or one of the tiny puppets may inadvertently fall on the floor. A character might speak with the wrong voice or the set might start to fall apart and need to be quickly put back together. Any disruption is welcome because it is handled with a disarming laugh and a shrug.

Zaloom’s work is political commentary sifted through an impish imagination laced with childlike wonder and joy. The show is both fresh and old-fashioned at the same time, and its message is sure to generate some interesting conversations. We need to start learning how to party like its 2042!

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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