Playwright David Lee White wants to entertain, and start the right conversation about mental illness
When David Lee White writes plays about characters with mental illness, he’s looking do many things — entertain an audience, get them thinking, get them laughing, and create a story and characters the audience will relate to.
“One of the things I’m really interested in is this idea of making it not such a taboo,” says White, whose play “Fixed” is being presented by Trenton’s Passage Theatre in Trenton through May 21.
The play is about three friends from high school who reunite because one of them, Ronnie (played by Maria Konstantinidis), is suffering from schizoaffective disorder symptoms of which can include hallucinations, delusions, and mood disorders. One of the ideas of the play is that Ronnie’s friends, Valerie (Alicia Isabel Rivas) and Daryl (Phillip Gregory Burke), didn’t know Ronnie dealt with mental illness back when they were friends, and White says the taboo factor is likely a reason why.
“And I think that was one of the reasons why I didn’t notice the signs,” says White, who wrote about his struggle with depression in his one-man play, “Panther Hollow.” “I didn’t recognize it, no one really talked about that stuff.”
The play’s writing came about in part because of “Panther Hollow,” in which White addressed some of his experiences in high school.
“It dredged up a lot of high school stuff,” White says. “But then I got really interested in (the idea that) people who show symptoms of mental illness start showing it kind of young, but no one really gets it. No one really sees it and yet it can have this kind of profound impact if you’re around it.”
The character of Ronnie, he says, is somewhat based on someone from his college days.
“I just didn’t see it at the time,” he says of that college friend dealing with mental illness. “I didn’t notice everything that was happening.”
He adds that as he wrote about friendships, he found himself thinking about friendships from high school, and how we think those friendships could never end, yet some of them inevitably do. He says he is fascinated by the idea that he had friends in high school who he thought would always be part of his life, but aren’t.
He says that while he’s addressing mental illness in “Fixed,” he’s also writing a drama, and wants to do more than inform people about facts involving mental illness.
“One thing I didn’t want it to be is a brochure on mental illness or bipolar disorder,” White says. “I didn’t want to to be a docudrama about ‘How you too can get treatment.’ So I hope that strikes a cord.”
In writing these plays, he says he’s also conscious not only of what the plays address but if they’re doing it the right way.
“I’m very conscious of, ‘We’re talking about it but are we talking about the right way and are we telling the right kind of story?'” he says.
He points to the Netflix show, “13 Reasons Why,” which has been the subject of controversy because of how the show’s approach to teen suicide and mental illness.
“I got mad at it without ever seeing it because I had a knee-jerk response, ‘They’re not telling the right story,'” White says. “Any kind of mental illness or treatment is so personalized, I think the talking about it, while good, has made people conscious of, ‘Are we telling the right story?’ Sometimes there’s a thin line between exploitation and honesty. I don’t know, I think it’s possible people could watch my play and think, ‘This is [ticking] me off because it’s not like that.’ I’m not sure what to do with that.”
White’s plays are often funny, and while “Fixed” has less humor than some of his other plays, White did include some funny moments, which he said was a delicate balance.
“I think those three friends are funny, and they’re not particularly politically correct, especially in 2000 when they’re 17 years old,” he says. “People have come back to me and said, ‘This particular joke, I think people are going to stop listening.’ And I’ve gone, ‘Oh come on.’ But then in the end, I’ve listened to their arguments and said, ‘OK for the greater good.’ People understanding the story is more important than that one joke, but it’s a difficult dance.”
“Fixed” is being performed by Passage Theatre at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 E. Front St., Trenton, through May 21. Tickets cost $20-$33l; www.passagetheatre.org; 609-392-0766.