Addison — It's been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act. We have an African-American President. Or is it black? That’s a question at home in Greg Kalleres’ Honky, presented by WaterTower Theatre at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi.
Honky tackles the issue of race relations, primarily white-andablack race relations, by employing a cast of essentially dumb characters who somehow trip themselves into awkward conversations where they inevitable let their inner racist fly. But, it’s funny and sometimes touching, so it’s all good, right?
Sure. The central plot runs through Sky shoes, a shoe company “by black people for black people”. Of course, the president of the company, though, is white. In fact he even has an exceedingly white name, Davis Tallison (Alan Pollard). He begins what becomes a disturbing pattern with the characters of the story in his first scene with Thomas Hodge (Calvin Roberts), the African-American designer of the company’s signature shoe.
Recently, a black teenager was shot in the street over the shoes. The shooter even quoted the commercial for the shoe’s tagline, “’Sup now?” This is where we meet Pete Trammel (Ian Ferguson), a white guy who wrote the ad, and his fiancé Andie Chastain (Whitney Holotik).
Tallison can’t seem to help but make everything about race, even employing the old bit that it’s not racist, just facts. Or “marketing,” in his words. Hodge lays on the holier-than-thou schtick, though he later reveals himself to be the exact same as Tallison but on the other side of the issue when he discusses it with his psychiatrist sister Emilia (Rebecca McDonald).
There’s a lot of that in this play. Basically, put white and black people in a room together, have one of them say something incredibly insensitive about race and watch the (usually comedic) sparks fly. Pepper in some white-on-white and black-on-black scenes in which they talk about these other scenes with their similarly complexioned friends or family.
It’s easy to mock the set-up, but somehow it works. These people are dumb when it comes to social cues, but it’s a construct meant to force the issue. Because in regular society, we’re more likely to avoid the situation altogether. This is kind of like one big “what if” for actually talking about our differences.
There’s also a weird subplot about prescription medicine, particularly Driscotol, a pill that makes one not racist by simulating a very specific kind of brain damage. While Kalleres’ intention is fairly clear, that there isn’t a simple pill that can cure racism, the execution sometimes overshadows the main action.
Yet, it all works. Honky is truly enjoyable. It’s not certain whether it will actually spur broader conversations about race among its audience members, but it is good overall.
The cast deserves most of the credit for the execution. There’s not a weak link among them. Particularly, Ferguson’s consuming neuroses is aggravatingly funny. His Pete Trammel is truly dealing with a crisis, believing he’s responsible for a death, but it comes out in such a humorous way most of the time. His interplay with McDonald is both hilarious and soul bearing for both of them. They have a great moment towards the end.
Pollard’s Tallison actually succeeds in drawing sympathy even though he starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic characters. He’s the “journey” character here. More than anyone, he goes on a journey to some sort of weird self-enlightenment that is both fun and somewhat nice to see for a formerly ruthless executive.
Last but not least, a major tip of the cap to Adam A. Anderson and Lord Alfred Brown, as Kid 1 and Kid 2 respectively. They mostly occupy these interstitial scenes in a subway and exist solely to subvert racial stereotypes. First they’re hardcore gangbanger types, though they prove in an interaction with Tallison that there’s not a malicious bone in their bodies. Next, they’re erudite and well-ressed discussing the philosophical implications of a film they’ve just seen. But when Pete Trammel remarks on how interesting their conversation is, it turns out things aren’t always what they seem. Finally, in an interaction with Thomas, all stereotypes are out the window. They’re both great.
Anderson also plays the part of Frederick Douglas, a hallucinatory side effect of Tallison’s dose of Driscotol. Quite simply, this is the best and funniest part of the entire show. And it’s all Anderson. Absolutely brilliant.
Honky isn’t perfect. That’s obvious in the title. It wants to push the boundaries and force the conversation, yet when picking a slur title, Kalleres went with one used only once, in passing, in the show. Slurs like “cracker” and the n-word, which are much more prominently featured don’t get the top billing here, which says…something about the show. Having the conversation is hard. Talking about it frankly is nearly impossible without heaps of offense being taken. So in that way, Honky is good. Both the play and the purpose.
But like in real life, it’s still just a little too timid to take it past a certain point. And maybe that says more about us than the play. Best way to figure out if that’s true is to go see it.
Don’t be surprised if you end up humming the title of a tune from a popular Broadway musical:
» Audio clip from the original cast recording of Avenue Q
» Honky repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 12; 9 p.m. Friday, March 14; and 5 p.m. Saturday, March 15 in the Studio Theatre at the Addison Theatre Centre
» WaterTower Theatre's 2014 Out of the Loop Fringe Festival is 10 days of live theater, dance, music and visual art. To see the full schedule, go here.