Saturday, November 7, 2015

Honky (San Diego Repertory Theatre/PBS “OnStage in America," 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned the TV back on and watched one of the most fascinating plays I’ve seen in quite some time: Honky, written by Greg Kalleres and premiered at the Urban Stages Theatre in New York in 2013, though the production being shown on KPBS was taped last year at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (which means I could conceivably have seen this production “live,” and I’m kicking myself for having missed it!). The ads for the show touted it as a stereotype-breaking and totally irreverent, potentially offensive, satire on how race is treated in America today and specifically how we’ve managed to make that “national dialogue on race” everyone calls for whenever there’s a big race riot or a racially motivated mass shooting almost impossible by declaring so much of the language “offensive” and therefore off limits. Kalleres doesn’t use the term “microaggression,” probably because he started writing his play before that one was coined, but he has constructed a surprisingly coherent story (I had half-expected and half-feared it would be a loosely connected string of vignettes, but though it has some rapid cinema-style cutbacks between characters it has five clearly defined principal roles and a coherent, well constructed and reasonably credibly resolved plot line) within which to make his points not only about the persistence of American racism and American racial guilt, but the fundamentally exploitative nature of American capitalism in general and mass marketing in particular.

The story opens in the office of Davis (James Newcomb), the CEO of Skymax Shoes, which for years has been making elaborately colored athletic shoes tailored to what Davis euphemistically calls the “urban” — i.e., Black — community. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Art Hoppe’s 1970’s column about a Black man saying that the term “Black” was out-of-date and “now they call me a City … you hear politicians saying we have to do something about the problems of our Cities? That’s us they’re talking about!” Later Hoppe had that speaker quote a Right-winger as saying that the programs to help Cities had become part of a Power-Mad Federal Bureaucracy, and comment, “What a country! A poor little Black kid like me can grow up to be the entire federal government!”) The company is reeling from the bad press that resulted when a 14-year-old Black kid was killed by another Black kid in a fight over his Sky 16 sneakers. This is happening just when the company is about to introduce the Sky 17, and to do damage control the CEO has called in Thomas Hodge (Gerard Joseph), the designer of the Sky 16 and 17 shoes. Thomas is visibly Black but, like President Obama (and I suspect the parallel was intended both by Kalleres and San Diego Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, who directed the production), is light-skinned, well spoken and clearly not from a ghetto background — which leads him to doubt his own racial “authenticity.” The conversation between Thomas and Davis clearly spirals out of control as Davis keeps stumbling into words and phrases that connote his own unconscious racism even while consciously trying not to offend — in fact, that’s about how all interactions between white and Black characters go in this play — and Davis gives Thomas the message that the company’s board has decided that instead of marketing strictly to Black people, they want to market to whites, but their products first have to be adopted by Blacks so suburban whites will think they’re “authentic” parts of the Black gangbanger style they’re trying to emulate. (What he doesn’t tell Thomas, and which we learn only later, is the board is making this change to make the company a more tempting acquisition target for Nike, which is in negotiations to buy them out.) Thomas also tries to get a guilt charge out of Davis by saying the murdered boy was his cousin — which he wasn’t.

The scene then cuts (the movie term is a pretty good indication of how quickly the scenes change, courtesy of a well-oiled machine that supplies appropriate “ghetto” music as the sets revolve to move us from one space to another) to the office of a therapist, Ella Hodge, whom we later find out is Thomas’s sister. She’s seeing a new patient, Peter (Francis Gercke), an advertising copywriter who wrote the commercial that made the Sky 16 shoe such a big hit and therefore feels responsible for the shooting of that 14-year-old kid. Unwilling to tell a therapist — and a Black therapist, at that — what’s really bothering him, Peter tells her about his fiancée, whom he’s having doubts about because “she’s so white.” In the next scene we see Peter at home with his fiancée, Andie (Jacque Wilke), whom we first meet doing aerobics, and she is indeed as “white,” culturally as well as racially, as Peter said she was. Eventually Andie and Thomas (as in “Uncle”? That seems to have been the one question that occurred to me that playwright Kalleres didn’t get asked in the quite compelling 15-minute on-screen interview he gave after the show) meet at a party being thrown by Skymax and hook up, and we get a couple of hot sex scenes between them in which the sight of Gerard Joseph wearing nothing but very clingy and revealing underpants would have given me an aesthetic charge even if it hadn’t been in the context of such a great play. Andie admits that at first she was drawn to Gerard because of the whole racist mythology about Black men being so well hung and so great in bed, but as the play (and their relationship) progresses it’s clear she’s staying with him because he’s genuinely more interesting and better for her than the moderately attractive but terminally wimpy Peter. Meanwhile, Davis’s “insensitive” language towards Thomas gets reported to the Skymax board, and an investigator shows up to interview him, carrying a portable tape recorder on which he wants to record Davis apologizing for his insensitivity so they can have that on record and keep him on as CEO — only the situation snowballs and he ends up getting fired. Peter, meanwhile, finds himself sexually attracted to his therapist and asks her out to dinner, and though she turns him down (oddly she does not say it would be inappropriate for him to date her because she’s his therapist; instead she tries to beg off and say she’s simply not interested), later on he crashes her apartment (it’s the same set as her office; obviously we’re supposed to read it as a live-work space) in the middle of the night, drunk, and this time she comes on to him and freaks him out.

Honky — a title chosen by Kalleres because it was the closest he could find to a term for white people similarly insulting to the “N-word” for Blacks (and the phrase “the ‘N-word’” is itself an example of the idiocy surrounding America’s racial discourse Kalleres wrote his play to ridicule!) — is an excellent drama, perched uncertainly on the boundary between serious and comic. Indeed, after one early performance Kalleres thought he had failed as a writer because no one had laughed; later he heard from audience members that they had found the play funny but were deliberately holding back their laughter because they weren’t sure they were “supposed” to find it funny. He also said that a talented Black actress he really wanted in the first production wasn’t sure she should audition for it because she was uncertain as to whether it was “appropriate” for her to play the part. The ultimate knife-twist in Kalleres’ satire is a drug invented by Dr. Driscoll (Jacob Bruce), who got the idea from a Ku Klux Klansman who took a fall off a roof and underwent chemical changes in his brain; he recovered physically but the altered brain chemistry eliminated all his racist beliefs. Driscoll studied this man and eventually synthesized the chemical into a drug which at different times is either taken or offered to most of the principals. It has a quirky side effect in that it causes its users to hallucinate that they’re being visited by real-life figures in America’s racial history; Davis (as in Jefferson? Again, one wonders whether Kalleres was going for a specific parallel in how he named his characters) is forced to take it by his company’s board as a condition for keeping his job, and he gets visited by Frederick Douglass (DeLeon Dallas, who also doubles as one of two street thugs who hang out on the New York subway and interact with the main character), whom he makes talk like a modern-day gangsta rapper. Emilia, after a shock scene in which we see her popping the anti-racism pills, gets a visit from Abraham Lincoln (also Jacob Bruce, though the doubling is poor because he’s too short and heavy-set to be credible — unlike DeLeon Dallas, whose stage makeup as Douglass is remarkably close to the photos of the real one), who boasts that he freed her people and makes a pass at her.

After the plot is resolved the actors return for a spot commercial for the drug — obviously written by Kalleres with reference to his own days as an advertising copywriter. Indeed, one fascinating thing about Honky is how the character closest to the playwright’s own background, Peter, is the least sympathetic and most annoying of the five principals! Along with the satire of race relations, Honky is almost inevitably a satire of capitalism itself, particularly the way modern marketing campaigns salami-slice the American population into “niches” and how they exploit racial, gender and other stereotypes to move the merchandise. Characters, both white and Black (other racial groups get mentioned in the dialogue but aren’t shown on stage), concerned about their own “authenticity” are enmeshed in an economic system in which the very idea of “authenticity” has become another marketing gimmick, and the most successful products are the ones whose manufacturers and advertising directors are best able to build a fake sense of “authenticity” around them. The great irony is that “fake authenticity” is not only not an oxymoron, it’s the only way companies like Skymax can market and make money from overpriced and frankly hideous shoes, and the characters are all too aware that the fact that someone would literally kill another person for their product indicates that they’ve reached the acme and created the ultimate in phony “authenticity.” Honky is a rich and fascinating work of art — one that avoids the preachiness of plays and films that attempt to deal with America’s racial riddles — though it’s also a piece that suffers more than most from the infuriating Puritanism imposed on American broadcasting by the Federal Communications Commission and its rules about “obscenity” and “indecency” on the air. So many swear words get bleeped that at times there are more bleeps than actual dialogue!