Micaela Taylor (front) and Mia Barron (behind), The White Album, 2018. Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
As 2018 draws to a close, so too do the many celebrations and commemorations surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of 1968—a year that was supposed to change the world. Drawing parallels across this half-century, Los Angeles-based performance art group Early Morning Opera has adapted Joan Didion’s seminal essay “The White Album” for the stage, playing this weekend as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.
Written over the course of ten years (1968–78), “The White Album” is a compilation of flashes into Didion’s memories of the late 1960s—observing The Doors in the recording studio, reading through Huey Newton’s court documents and her own medical records, watching strike leaders at San Francisco State College prepare for a press conference after clashing with police, packing her suitcase for reporting trips, buying a dress for Manson family member Linda Kasabian to wear in court. Early on in her essay, Didion recalls asking Kasabian “what she thought about the apparently chance sequence of events” that had brought her first to the Manson family, then to prison on charges associated with the Tate and LaBianca murders. “‘Everything was to teach me something,’ Linda said. Linda did not believe that chance was without pattern,” Didion writes. “Linda operated on what I later recognized as dice theory, and so, during the years I am talking about, did I.”
Drawing from this idea of dice theory, The White Album’s director, Lars Jan, stages a multilayered performance. The first layer comprises a young, barefoot Didion (played by Mia Barron) delivering the essay in its entirety, with four other actors taking on various roles in the stories she recounts, reciting direct quotations from Didion’s original text and acting out key scenes. The second layer is the performance’s internal audience of twenty local students, activists, and artists between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. They sit on the floor downstage, watching the first half of the performance, before joining a party inside a glass house, the set’s only structure. The third layer is the glass house itself, representing the utopian architectural landscape of 1960s California, playing host both to Didion’s stories and to a climactic and brutal confrontation between a white police officer and a black college student. (A potential fourth layer arrives for those watching what were moments from their historical youth now played out by a young generation.)
Though Barron plays Didion with care and pathos while narrating the gamut of stories throughout The White Album, some of the most affecting added layers of performance involve dancer Micaela Taylor and musician Sharon Udoh. In the first part of the play, as Barron talks of “the house on Franklin Avenue,” the giant house where Didion lived at the time, Taylor weaves into the glass house onstage in a captivating angular dance, a beautiful reference to both mid-century modern architecture, as well as the history and continued evolution of dance itself. A short time later, while Barron describes watching The Doors wait for Jim Morrison to arrive for a recording session at the studio, Udoh stands behind a keyboard, accompanying the session and breaking into a truly heartfelt rendition of “Moonlight Drive,” singing the lyrics Didion quotes in her text. (When Morrison, played by Andrew Schneider, finally arrives, although Didion describes him as lounging on the couch, he inexplicably gyrates and mimes a truly overdone on-stage performance.) Later on, in scenes involving the Black Panther Party, Udoh and Taylor provide a memorable performance as Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver. When Newton is shot in a firefight with police, Udoh lays down on a table in agony, while a nurse, played by Stephanie Regina, refuses to let him see a doctor until he’s provided proof of the correct health insurance.
In the first half of The White Album, the scenes with Udoh, Taylor, Regina, and Schneider weaving in and out as various characters add to the overall feeling of Didion’s words. But in the middle of the story about The Doors, once the onlookers enter the glass house, this second layer starts to distract from the text. When Barron describes the contents of Didion’s suitcase on her press trips, the loud party in the background seems to have nothing to do with the original text, serving instead as a diversion from the writer’s philosophical musings. Accompanying the following section, describing the strike at San Francisco State College, the internal audience stages a college sit-in, scrawling onto the back wall buzzwords and phrases pertaining to the need for criminal justice reform and the evils of capitalism, racism, and sexism. By the time the police officer arrives to break up the protest, the heavy-handedness of this added layer is almost too much; and while the violent confrontation between the police (Schneider) and a black student (Taylor) inside the glass house is poignant as a background to Didion’s section on the Manson murders, had Scheider not been dressed in riot gear, the audience would have understood.
Overall a captivating performance, The White Album nevertheless suffers from a false sense of pinnacle and denouement, creating a linear drama that coheres into a single story from a text that’s purposefully disjointed. In the end, Didion’s all-important “story without a narrative” becomes lost in the added (narrative-seeking) layers of performance. As the famous first line of “The White Album” informs us: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It seems Early Morning Opera’s adaptation was doomed to fall into this trap, seeking historical continuity as a means of making sense of the world and teaching us something about it. These days, like back in 1968, we once again feel a need to operate on dice theory.
The White Album continues at the BAM Harvey Theater in New York through December 1.