Subtitled “A Honky Dory Puppet Show,” White Like Me takes us through the sordid history of white man’s conquering of the world through the twisted eyes of Paul Zaloom. There is a lot of sarcastic name-calling and finger-pointing in Zaloom’s world of white men and possibly some of the material could be construed as offensive due to its racial nature but it’s clear that the show is intended to poke fun at a culture that is only allowed to make fun of itself and anyone who is offended probably deserves to be.
At the top of the show Zaloom enters with a warm greeting to his audience and then launches into a story about a dummy that he just picked up at a secondhand store. This foul-mouthed dummy has been in his box since 1962 and Zaloom is trying to explain to it how things are different in 2012. One thing in particular is race relations and as Zaloom tries to tell the dummy that you can’t call Asians “Oriental” anymore he gets the idea to tell the story of white man’s rise. He starts the story with exploration and discovery and goes into transformation and commerce and so on until white man becomes a concerned citizen. God appears to the white men in many mysterious ways including as a beard, an octopus and as a tornado. Each time God tries to direct white man’s ascension, but they, of course, never get the message quite right.
There is a bizarre menagerie of dolls, toys and objects that are sometimes cobbled together to create all the characters. The white men are portrayed with beefy action figures, or an astronaut or a fireman, while all other races are portrayed with little green alien figures. The set is a miniature proscenium stage that has a fixed camera placed in front of it and then the image is projected large on the wall behind Zaloom so we never had to strain to see the action. Zaloom alone voices all of the characters and he performs all of their action and somewhere in there he finds time to make scene changes. It is an incredible feat to watch as Zaloom switches from an old-timey Mugsy-type voice to a Russian lady to an old Jewish guy while at the same time dropping new characters into the scene. His vocal characterizations are outstanding. They are a driving force in the show.
The writing, credited to Zaloom and his collaborator Lynn Jeffries, is hilarious in a tongue-in-cheek, vaudeville inspired sort of way. There are a lot of corny puns and sight gags all of which Zaloom is the first to recognize as corny. Still, they give us a fair amount to think about in terms of how race relations have changed over the years. Zaloom and Jeffries' portrayal of white man as arrogant and greedy is always funny but it certainly goes a bit deeper at times. As with all toy theater, the puppet designs are mostly manufactured toys, dolls and objects so the creative manner in which the puppeteer uses them as characters is where the design comes into play. Zaloom and Jeffries (and director Randee Trabitz) are extremely creative in how they represent the world with these objects.
I really enjoyed the design and extraordinary execution of the show. It’s like watching a grown kid play with dolls. It made me feel like a kid again. I left filled with a sense of delight and playfulness. I think you’ll have the same experience.