Prominent area playwright and former Passage Theater Associate Director David White brings Trenton — and more — to the stage when his new play “Fixed” opens on Thursday, May 4, for a three-week run at the Mill Hill Theater in Trenton.
As White tells it, “Fixed” follows three friends at Trenton Central High School in 2000, Ronnie, Valerie, and Darryl. Ronnie tries to kill herself, and neither Valerie nor Darryl really knows what to do about their friend’s budding mental illness. The friends lose touch with Ronnie, like people often do when someone becomes increasingly mentally ill, White says. Seventeen years later, they find that Ronnie is homeless, seriously mentally ill, and angry at her former friends.
If this sounds like a playwright’s convention, know that this very situation is a piece of White’s life.
“The most autobiographical part of ‘Fixed’ is, I had a college friend who was seriously mentally ill,” White says. “It was … awkward. We stopped being friends.”
Twenty-odd years later, White, now 48, started wondering what had become of his old friend. It turned out, her story had become a viral one online. She was living in a decrepit house with far too many cats.
“[Her story] was actually worse than in the play,” he says. “It would have been incredible if I tried to put it in the play.”
To be clear, White doesn’t mean incredible in the “really cool” sense of the word. He means it in the “absolutely contrived and not believable” sense of the word. He did do some digging and reconnected with his old friend, something he describes as “meaningful in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.” The two still correspond the old-fashioned way — through actual written letters in the mail.
Told through flashbacks, “Fixed” confronts the anger and guilt and uncertainty that comes with having a mentally ill person in your life, White says. An aspect of the play is admittedly about mental health advocacy, something White has a passion for. He sees the importance of being the voice of the voiceless; talking to and about, as the late Peter Jennings once said, not the movers and shakers, but the moved and the shaken.
‘Fixed’ confronts the anger and guilt and uncertainty that comes with having a mentally ill person in your life.
Mental health, White says, is still such a taboo. People of all kinds, from the down-and-out to “rich, white oligarchs” suffer from depression, he says, but it’s still considered something to be ashamed of, something to hide, something that makes us look weak.
“Let’s talk about it,” White says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, White has had to cope with his own depression issues. To a degree, he says, he wouldn’t be able to discuss mental illness if he wasn’t so familiar with it. But just because it’s a serious thing, just because it needs to be de-scandalized, doesn’t mean you can’t make talking about it entertaining, which is why White writes about issues like depression, anger, guilt and distrust in engaging, sometimes bitterly funny ways.
The reception to his plays, he says, has always been positive. People seem to recognize what he’s going for, and they appreciate that he’s bringing up realities that people don’t always feel comfortable talking about. To White, “the voiceless” is not just the poor — though, he says, poor people are often the most damaged by mental illness — it’s anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable admitting a problem.
“I want everybody’s stories to be told,” he says.
White is also familiar with uncomfortable topics like racism. He grew up in St. Louis, the son of a psychologist father and English teacher mother, and his grandparents lived in Spanish Lake, which has developed into a genuinely boiling-over hotbed of racism and extreme politics. The roots go back to the Pruitt-Igoe apartments constructed in the 1960s (and torn down in just a few years because the complex turned into a real-life horror show), a reaction to St. Louis’ “white flight” that drove African Americans into the city center and white city residents to the suburbs, including Spanish Lake.
Incidentally, you can read White’s 10-minute play, “Spanish Lake,” on his website, DavidLeeWhite.net.
White was drawn to the stage from the beginning and attended the University of Missouri-Kansas City for his bachelor’s in theater. He then got his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, where he met his wife, Allison Trimarco, a Jersey girl attending Carnegie-Mellon University, on a blind date.
After Pittsburgh, Trimarco moved back to New Jersey, and in 2002 founded Consulting for Nonprofits (now called Creative Capacity) to “collaborate with nonprofit organizations of all types to increase their management capacity,” according to the company’s website. White moved to Chicago to be an actor and director, at least until he realized he was so very much not a theater director. Allison moved out to Chicago, where, he says, they ended up “spinning our wheels” in the city’s theater scene. So they moved east and settled in Bordentown.
White wanted to get into Trenton’s theater scene and started as a volunteer with its most famous outfit, Passage Theater. He became an assistant art director under June Ballinger, who eventually challenged White to write a play for Passage. The script he came back with was “Blood: A Comedy.”
Having moved more into playwriting, White eventually left the safety of Passage’s steady paychecks to do his own thing. It’s something most people can’t understand, he says. But he never felt like he was driving his own car while he was working at Passage. He has nothing but nice things to say about the place — he just felt the need to guide his own path.
The Whites have a six-year-old son White describes as “very outdoorsy.” Translation: probably not crazy enough to find the carnival-style life of the gig economy appealing. At least not in theater. But that’s just fine, White says. The boy will find his own story.
White also teaches theater at Drexel University as an adjunct professor, does occasional theater work at McCarter Theater in Princeton, and volunteers with kids at Trenton High. These days, long removed from wanting to be a director and only occasionally interested in acting, White says he enjoys the company of other writers. They seem to understand him internally — except for the fact that he genuinely loves the rewriting process, which most writers dread.
“I know that’s strange,” he says, “but I love being faced with a writing problem and then having to write my way out of it on a tight deadline.”
If there’s anything resembling a life lesson, it’s probably that acting taught him how to cope with rejection, he says. And that’s key to batting a thousand by getting up every day. “The world doesn’t end if people don’t like your work,” he says. “It really doesn’t.”
Fixed, directed by veteran theater director and Trenton resident Maureen Heffernan, was originally commissioned by the NJPAC Stage Exchange, a program of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. It runs May 4-21 at Passage Theater, 16 East Hanover Street. $33 and $38 for Saturday night shows. Student, senior, and group tickets available for select dates. For information, visit passagetheatre.org.
This story was originally published in the May 2017 Trenton Downtowner.