When it comes to conversations about race, the “sticks and stones” adage holds no weight. Words do matter, and they do hurt.
In Greg Kalleres’s 2014 play “Honky,” we enter a discussion about race through the lens of language. It offers not an easy way through the issues — easy isn’t helpful — rather a productive, reparative one.
A new production of “Honky” opened Thursday at the Subversive Theatre Collective, directed by Gary Earl Ross, who also co-stars. Like many shows here, this production leaves a lot to be desired. It’s awkwardly staged, shabbily designed, and lacks a certain kind of theatrical polish that might have better grounded its characters in the real adult world.
Even at Subversive, a company proudly rooted in stories about the working class, you have to work a little harder at making your stories work.
Kalleres’s play also raises concern. On a positive note, it is sharply written. His characters come fully charged with zingers, quips and comebacks whose pleasures are hard to deny. And again, and most importantly, it exists to move the conversation forward. That’s the least a play about race can do, let alone one written by a white male.
Kalleres draws on his own background in branding and marketing to weave together a multitude of side conversations about consumerism, capitalism and the media. It’s a smart play, that much is true, but when you consider its significance off the stage, in the larger racial discourse, its asterisk looms.
It appears to be an equal-opportunity offender, in that it imbues every character with both a burden of shame and a responsibility for progress. However part of me questions the shortcomings in Kalleres’s presence. Much of it deals with the white guilt of a white marketing copywriter, the repercussions of a campaign he wrote that some he believes led to the shooting of a teen. There’s a lot to unpack here.
The production keeps these themes and discussions on track, which helps us in that unpacking. But it falters mostly in its presentation.
First, the positives. Shawnell Tillery gives a spectacular performance as Emilia, a psychiatrist who struggles to balance her image as a successful, well-off black woman, and the expectations of her cultural identity. Tillery’s characterization is astutely crafted, making it easy and fun to observe her reactions. She keeps us on our toes.
As Peter, the copywriter, Sean Marciniak offers the quintessential portrait of a white executive crippled by his own contradictions. Marciniak gives a wildly fun performance here, and holds his own to Tillery’s strengths. Bekki Sliwa is also quite strong, as Andie, Peter’s whitest-girl-ever girlfriend. It’s a performance that’s so spot-on, you might question which came first: the Sliwa chicken or the Andie egg.
Lamont Singletary and Lacheona Smith are just so great as various pairs of kids. They work off each other like a seasoned duo, and bring great energy to their scenes.
Ross, who appears briefly as a charming (and sleazy) medical professional, also delivers a smart performance that bears the production’s only true notion of a satirical wink-wink. His directorial work is fine enough regarding his actors. Some would benefit from maintaining more focus and one-on-one attention with their scene partners, but they all show up and serve the show’s objective. But Ross’s staging is clunky, and set too far upstage too much of the time. In an already deeply rectangular space, it creates unnecessary strain to connect. The set’s design could be simpler, too; random decorations are unnecessary in a black-box theater.
These are important discussions to have, even if they’re difficult. But it’s incumbent on our professional storytellers to help us out a little more.
“Honky” by Greg Kalleres
2 stars (out of four)
Subversive Theatre Collective
The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Runs through Nov. 18, Thurs.–Sat. at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online and at the box office. $30 general admission, $25 members, students and seniors. Subversivetheatre.org, 716.408.0499