‘White Savior’ Examines Family Dynamics Amid Differing Political Views


Photo by Robert Holman | Courtesy Pygmalion Productions

(Photo by Robert Holman | Courtesy Pygmalion Productions)

By Frank Gardner, Assistant Arts Editor


In award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux’s latest work, “White Savior,” we catch a glimpse at the complexity of maintaining relationships with family members in today’s political climate. 

The Story

The one-and-a-half-hour play takes us through the tumultuous relationship of human rights researcher Jean Hatch (Liz Whittaker), her conservative sister Susan McSand (April Fossen) and her niece Theresa McSand (Sydney Shoell) after a tweet labeling Jean a “white savior” goes viral. 

The tweet, sent by professor and journalist Edward Johnson Town (Calbert Beck), features a video of Jean in a congressional hearing testifying on behalf of the organization she works for. The chairman of the hearing becomes frustrated as he tries to tell Jean she has gone over her allotted time and she responds by raising her voice even louder and talking over him to quote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. 

The backlash from the tweet compels Susan to defend her sister by barging into Edward’s office unannounced and demanding an apology — yelling at him about Jean’s merits as a humanitarian. Susan’s embarrassing display ends with her grabbing the professor’s lunch and throwing it at him while he pretends to call security to get her to leave. 

Jean quickly resolves to visit the professor and apologize for her sister’s behavior after hearing what happened. This reconciliation leads them to become friends, and they begin to plan a mission to provide relief to people at ICE detention camps along the U.S.-Mexico border. Jean’s already strained exchanges with Susan grow tenser as Susan’s daughter, Theresa, plans on joining Jean and Edward at the border.

Susan confesses that she wishes to divorce her controlling husband as the play concludes at the Desert Cactus Motel where Jean, Theresa and Edward are preparing to assist people along the border. The other characters ostensibly forgive her out of pity for her situation and resolve to continue on their mission. 

Gardner’s Take

Though the dialogue touches on the impact and meaning of the white savior trope, there is a divergence between the play’s central focus and its title. Jean, Susan and Theresa are white, and the nuanced issues of racism and the white savior complex take a backseat to their interpersonal conflicts. 

Filloux seems more concerned with addressing the complexities of Susan, Jean and Theresa’s relationship than she does with exploring how their actions have impacted Edward. Artistic works focused on issues of race relations overwhelmingly feature the perspectives and experiences of white people, and this play is no exception. 

Beck’s character, Edward, is a Black professor and journalist. During the play, he is required to engage in the difficult work of educating Jean and Susan about racism. Susan remains one-dimensional and obtuse the entire play — whereas Edward brims with personality and depth but is given little opportunity to show it. The only emotions he displays are used to alleviate Susan’s painful ignorance with humor.

Examining issues like the white savior trope primarily through the lens of white people’s experience is a tired narrative that limits our view of how racism negatively impacts Black, Indigenous and people of color and our communities. This play has the potential to allow white members of the audience to reflect on their own ignorance as they identify with Jean, Susan or Theresa but fails by overshadowing Edward’s experience as a Black person.

Pygmalion Productions debuted this play on Nov. 1 of this year, just a few days before the U.S. presidential election. The timing of its release will presumably magnify the difficulty of maintaining relationships across political divides and will hopefully motivate viewers to engage in important discussions about race. 

“White Savior” is available to stream at pygmalionproductions.org until the end of this month.