The Visitor: A Case Study in White Savior Storytelling

Credit: The Public

In The Visitor, the new Tom Kitt scored musical that recently premiered at The Public Theatre, a white professor and Syrian refugee develop a friendship that feels more transactional than earnest. As framed by Brian Yorkey and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s book, the currency that drives their relationship is white savior antics that leave both characters poorer.

Walter (David Hyde Pierce), the show’s “hero”, begins the show in an emotional malaise due to the passing of his wife. Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) strikes up a friendship with Walter and teaches him how to play the drums. As Walter begins to develop rhythm on the drums he also finds a new zest for life. Tarek is arrested for jumping a subway turnstile and faces certain deportation. Walter attempts to “save” Tarek from deportation and ultimately fails. Walter moves on with his life and decides to finish his book. In short, one family’s traumatic journey through the asylum-seeking process is framed as a set of checkpoints for a white man’s social and emotional awakening. 

Throughout the show, Walter is fed a steady supply of trauma porn to consume as a philosophical romp through his white privilege. At one point, Walter offers Zainab, Tarek’s partner, his apartment to stay the night. Zainab steadfastly refuses and provides an account of past sexual trauma that she has suffered. For the first time ever it seems, Walter is pensive over the sexual violence that women suffer at the hands of misogyny and white supremacy. This episode ends with Walter feeling pangs of white guilt before quickly moving on.

Even the driving force of the show, Tarek’s detention, is treated with this level of disregard. During a visit, Tarek drops all sense of agency despite being a long time survivor of American xenophobia and begs, “Walter get me out of here.” It is as if he has no other option for help but his new white friend. Indeed, Tarek’s actual support system is sidelined into an overzealously grateful ensemble to Walter’s magnanimity. 

Mouna, Tarek’s mother, who flies to New York after learning about Tarek’s arrest, is reduced to a damsel in distress who thanks Walter for just being there. A semi-flirtatious relationship arises between the two with Walter finding romance for the first time since his wife’s passing. This ignores Zainab’s earlier warning that  romantic propositions carry transactional weight when a white man holds all of the power. Though Walter is eager to revel in his white guilt, he does little to change himself or the system that he actually participates in.

As Alysha Deslorieux, in the show’s most believable performance, says through Zainab, “if the charity isn’t silent, then you are the charity.” If only the show had switched from its focus on Walter’s supposed charity to allow this message to actually resonate by giving equal time to other characters in The Visitor.

Instead, we are offered choreographed musical numbers with ICE agents that left one wondering if this was the best format to tell Tarek’s story. Far from entertaining, slant rhymes in a detention center coupled with the inhumane conditions that they are known for make light of the real trauma that refugees experience. Rather than address the power dynamics that accompany the asylum-seeking process, The Visitor sidelines its intricacies to elevate Walter’s finding a new sense of purpose by playing at being the hero. 

There is no place for white savior narratives in stories that purport to be about people of color. Previews for The Visitor were pushed back by a week in an effort to restructure the show’s representation of race. That was the right move, but it was clearly not enough. I hope that this musical is seen as a relic of pre-pandemic theatre and warns future theatre makers of the harm they can cause by investing theatre’s precious resources in the wrong stories.

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