“White Woman in Progress” is a one person show in which Tara Ochs, who also wrote the script, explores her own understanding of racism. Ochs’ role in the 2014 film “Selma” as Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered for her role in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, helped her realize her own lack of knowledge of the Civil Rights movement and her lack of understanding of the prevalence of racism, both in society and in her own behavior.
The work was directed by 7 Stages artistic director Heidi S. Howard on the black box stage. Throughout the performance, documentary clips or photographs were projected as illustrations or complements to what Ochs was saying. The rear wall was painted white and had six white, square boards mounted off-set from the wall with an arch in the middle that served to frame a central area for projections while the squares were the focus of smaller projections. Ochs portrayed a number of characters, but generally not independent of their conversations with her, so it came across more like the kind of impersonations that a particularly good storyteller might weave into an anecdote.
The conceptual and emotional journey that she took us on wasn’t one designed to give answers but, instead, to bring to the forefront a conversation about the discomfort and guilt that a lot of White people feel regarding racism and their understanding of their own behavior towards Black people. Ochs didn’t imply that she’d conquered her own racist tendencies – indeed, she owned up to them – but she brought us into her own progression trying to find a way to grow out of them and also to confront the racism that she sees around her. The subject matter was incredibly personal and Ochs made no attempts to suggest that it was anything but her own story. However, she managed to make it very relatable and generalizable. She made very effective use of humor and a good bit of silliness to take the audience directly into sensitive discussions of racism and privilege but also managed to be very moving, to the extent that I was nearly in tears by the end.
From the perspective of a White person who tries to be honest with himself about his own faults in regards to racism, it was somewhat cathartic to me to see many of the things that I’ve felt expressed so well by another person. Even more so, though, I think that it felt good to have a moment of time in which I wasn’t alone with those feelings. This certainly isn’t the kind of play that’s going to convince a dyed in the wool racist to think differently but I think that it can start a conversation among people who may need to find a way to conceptualize their own faults in regards to racial thinking and behavior in a way that can help them to grow past them. It’s really about being honest about White guilt and making something good come of it. Beyond that, though, it is a well performed, well produced, and very entertaining show that is definitely worth seeing even if you aren’t in the mood for personal growth.