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Theatre in Review: Honky (Urban Stages)

Arie Bianca Thompsoin and Anthony Gaskins. Photo: Ben Hider

The killing of a young black boy for a coveted pair of sneakers sets several lives spinning out of control in Honky, a scattershot but sometimes very funny satire that introduces Greg Kalleres, a playwright who is very much worth knowing about. The shoes, known as SkyMax, provoke the kind of violent theft that turns up in the Post and Daily News again and again, causing everyone to tut-tut about where society is headed. Among the makers and marketers of SkyMax, however, big trouble is brewing.

Kalleres does not put his best foot forward in the first scene, in which Thomas, who designs the annual edition of the shoe, shows up with the latest model, a confection that looks something like what would happen if Peter Max went to work for Nike. ("It looks like a circus shoe," says Davis, the head of marketing, with some distaste.) Thomas is upset by the boy's death; he is even more upset by Davis' explanation that SkyMax shoes are marketed to black kids as a kind of stalking horse; once they are taken up by the "urban market" (a euphemism worked for all it is worth here), then white suburban teenagers will follow. As he bluntly puts it, the plan is to make the shoes "real to the posers of white America." Thomas is shocked -- shocked! -- to hear this, and, in retaliation, claims, untruthfully, that the dead boy was his cousin.

The idea that Thomas doesn't know that corporations market products to blacks in order to give them street cred for white kids suggests he has been living on Mars for most of his life; his naïveté is a vehicle for letting Kalleres spell out his theme for the audience. In any case, Thomas decides to hunt down Peter, who wrote the commercial that presumably triggered the killing, to tell him a thing or two. Meanwhile, Peter (who, unbeknownst to Thomas, is white) is sitting in the office of his new psychiatrist, Emilia, trying to bare his guilt over the commercial. However, he is stunned to discover that Emilia is black, and he spends most of his first session stumbling over himself trying to prove that he isn't racist.

Emilia handles Peter in her best blandly professional manner, but we soon learn that she is getting fed up with listening to what she considers to be white people's petty problems. It's a good thing her clients don't include Andie, Peter's fiancée, who is so self-involved that the word "narcissism" hardly seems to do her justice. She spends most of her time in yoga postures, talking about the infinite details of their upcoming nuptials, blithely adding the news that she might be a victim of repressed memory syndrome.

As it happens, Emilia is Thomas' sister, and things get really tangled when Andie, the epitome of white privilege, ends up in bed with Thomas, and Peter, desperate to absolve himself of his guilt, starts throwing himself at Emilia. Meanwhile, Davis' black employees rise in revolt, accusing him of racism just as a big corporate merger is in the offing, leading him to take increasingly desperate measures to prove his racial bona fides.

For all its convoluted plotting, Honky moves in fits and starts. Kalleres has plenty of mordant points to make about race relations and corporate America, but if anything, he is too on the money, forgoing laughter for straightforward speechmaking. (A series of scenes in which various characters encounter young black men on the subway, always misconstruing their intentions, never really pays off. The play really starts to amuse when he introduces Driscotol, a pill aimed at eliminating racism in its users by slightly deadening their occipital lobes. The author has a lethally hilarious way with the kind of oh-so-soothing marketing techniques used by the drug companies, and Scott Barrow excels as the preternaturally calm doctor whose criteria for diagnosing racism are so baffling that it would seem that everyone is afflicted and therefore a potential customer. Driscotol also has bizarre, hallucinatory side effects. White people are visited by no less than the shade of Frederick Douglass, who arrives to prick their consciences. Emilia, on the other hand, is visited by a randy Abe Lincoln, who notes that she has a Condoleezza Rice quality that he personally finds 'smokin'."

As you can see, Honky is all over the place, but its we'll-try-anything spirit keeps it afloat. Luke Harlan's fast-paced production sometimes lets the performances get too overstated, but there are many tasty moments. Dave Droxler's Peter is best in his first scene with Emilia, his panic at encountering a black therapist sending him into a veritable ballet of vocal tics and nervous mannerisms. Danielle Faitelson's Andie may be an airhead, but she knows her way around a line; listening one more time to Peter's protest that his mother marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., she snaps, "Just because you went to a public high school doesn't make you Nelson Mandela." Anthony Gaskins does a great deal with Thomas' ever-increasing state of confusion; you can see him wondering how he ever ended up in bed with Andie, discussing men who use eyeliner. Arie Bianca Thompson is a little too over-the-top at first as Emilia, but she improves as she goes along, especially in a private moment when she mimes her contempt for Peter's whiny problems.

Honky is yet another play that unfolds in dozens of locations, so Roman Tatarowicz has smartly designed a three-walled set that serves as a canvas for Caite Hevner Kemp's projections of office interiors, New York skylines, and subway cars, among other things. Tatarowicz also employs the minimum number of furnishings for each scene, allowing for rapid transitions. Miriam Nilofa Crowe's lighting, Sarah Thea Swafford's costumes, and Brandon Wolcott's sound design are all solidly delivered.

Even if Honky has its ups and downs, Kalleres deserves kudos simply for stepping into this hornets' nest of a subject. Based on his bio, this appears to be a very early work. It certainly suggests that we'll be hearing from him again. --David Barbour


(28 October 2013)

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