There’s a point, around halfway through What You Are, when one character turns to another and asks: “You gonna make me beg?” It’s a stunning moment, both for the emotional content and the way it sums up the play.
Begging is what these characters do. They beg for jobs (even shitty ones), respect, understanding. They want someone to take a moment to hear what they are saying, but that’s not likely to happen. Listening is not part of the equation.
Set in a Nevada desert town, Don (Jonathan Walker) works for Hector (Adrian Anchondo) in some achingly banal service job, and is dissatisfied he’s not getting enough work. Hector has devised a kind of “survival of the fittest” algorithm that ranks employees based on customer feedback and other inputs. The algorithm decides who gets more work, but Don doesn’t think it’s fair. The two have words, and that sets the whole sordid train in motion.
At home, Don’s wife, Sigourney (Omozé Idehenre) has back issues and is on permanent disability. His daughter Katie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) is putting off college to take care of her (them). The family argues around a kitchen table that looks like a set piece from an early 70s fever dream.
Don is complicated, like someone who voted for Obama twice before punching the chad for Trump. He can make arguably racist statements with ease but calls out someone at a bar for homophobia. He wants to be good, but he’s not sure being good will help.
Katie is angry, frustrated and zealous. She likes to prowl right-wing chatrooms to educate (troll) the participants. Sigourney is trying to preserve the meager life the family has cobbled together.
Hector is invested in his personal brand but bridles at the patronizing white men who expect him to answer their Hispanic questions. None of the characters are happy with their lives or how the world treats them. They regret not reading the small print.
The play is riddled with themes from contemporary America and could have easily devolved into a series of red v. blue strawmen. But it doesn’t. Lee’s thoughtful script, commissioned by the Globe (good job, Globe), pokes at the ambiguities and then pokes some more.
The characters are all likable, even when they’re angry, even when they’re unreasonable. Nobody is bad or good, they’re just trying to live with the programming they acquired.
And the cast comes up big. Walker plays Don as a put-upon white guy who’s trying to be more “woke,” but doesn’t really understand the concept. Don’s interchanges with his best friend Randy (Mike Sears) are riveting. Brown excels as a know-it-all young adult who just can’t understand why the world does not automatically accepts her airtight logic.
What You Are is a brilliant snapshot of people being buffeted by social forces they will never control or even fully understand. When the begging doesn’t work, they opt for being right – constantly stuck in their own heads, formulating the next zinger. They talk past each other in a way that is so accurate, it hurts.