Playwright Graham Isador’s White Heat was the SummerWorks 2019 show I was most excited to see. With an acclaimed creative team and topical subject matter, it pretty much had me at the press release. Rooted in real events, this story—a clash between an alt-right podcaster and a journalist—is familiar. Every word hits its mark, rings true, and gives voice to ideas we’ve had, challenged or feared.
This is our world. And in it, we meet:
Alice Kennings—a journalist. She’s just started her dream job at an edgy, popular publication. With wide-eyed enthusiasm, Makambe K Simamba reveals Alice’s integrity and determination right away. As the racist and misogynistic harassment against her escalates beyond standard trolling, she gradually reveals her fear and doubt too.
The podcaster, who calls himself The Captain, is white and angry. He has his reasons and he proudly shares them—women, immigrants, SJWs. The tricky thing about him is: he doesn’t sound hateful; he sounds coherent and reasonable, until you unpack him and his rhetoric. And Isador does a fine job of that. As does Tim Walker in his portrayal of fragile masculine ego. He’s frightening, not in spite of his vulnerability, but because of it. You want to, but you can’t quite dismiss him. His vile perspective—sure; but not him, not as a person, not quite.
When Alice writes an opinion piece declaring the virtues of punching Nazis in the face, The Captain shares her name, work and social media info and encourages his followers to let her know, well, that they are watching and that they know where she is. This leads to a terrifying episode at her work that inspires her to raise the stakes and meet the challenge.
The dialogue is a quick and steady. Tension is built up and released with masterful precision. Director Jill Harper makes it all feel so kinetic and efficient yet entirely natural. Again: this feels like our world. We know these people. And we dread where this is going.
Before the show, Isador makes it clear that the work is still in development. I can’t imagine it has far to go. In its current form, it held me tightly for 70 minutes. There is the potential for more visual design elements, I suppose, though Chris Ross-Ewart’s eerie sound scape already feels immersive and thrilling. Kim Purtel’s lighting doesn’t call attention to itself, though I did notice the sinister blue that hangs cooly on the sides of faces.
Isador’s play is frequently unpleasant, in much the same way our world is right now, but there is also healing humour. One line in particular comes to mind: “I can’t believe there are Nazis again!” Right?
White Heat is a searing reminder that we can’t afford to let that become our new normal.