Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre
Extended through July 17
For a considerable time now, it has become exceptionally difficult to shock an audience, a gambit that used to be an important arrow in the artist’s quiver. Nevertheless, in a society where in recent years the most dreaded circumstance has become to feel in any colorable way “awkward”, discomfiting the viewer may now be the next best thing.
Greg Kalleres’ Honky shows little mercy in producing squirms of recognition and insecure identification for both white and black audiences, in illuminatingly different ways. Its satiric thrust can be uncannily accurate, and the genuine laughs tend to be accompanied by stinging pricks of bloodletting. Examining contrasting anxieties in social interactions and conversations regarding race necessarily means exposing the discomforts we persist having in dealing with the subject, not to mention getting beyond it. And, by implication, Honky addresses our general incapacity to confront any issue requiring sensitivity, nuance or a genuine exchange of actual ideas, let alone sincere emotions.
The set-up is a classic sardonic ploy: a new white marketing director, Davis Tallison (Bruce Nozick) has been brought into an “urban” sneaker company to expand its appeal to white adolescents, offending the black house creative designer, Thomas Hodge (Burl Moseley), who descends into a personal crisis over a sensationally hyped news story concerning a teen shot over a pair of his brand shoes. Hodge’s sister, Emilia (Inger Tudor), an elite psychiatrist with a white clientele that includes the ad copywriter who concocted the faux street slogan intoned by the shoe assassin, maintains her professional dignity under great duress, while endeavoring to support her brother. When she calms him through a panic attack, he protests that “Black people don’t hyperventilate,” which inescapably becomes a running gag.
It’s rather as if the microaggressions detailed so poetically by Claudia Rankine in Stephen Sachs’ adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric last year at the Fountain were instead amplified to such an egregious level of prolix cluelessness that even the tone-deaf and unaware perpetrators could not help but flinch in embarrassment. Where Citizen contributed insight, Honky compels acknowledgement, turning the unremitting anxiety that come from affronts to identity and worth straight back on the perpetrators.
Of course, as Kalleres understands and explores, the root of such bad manners (and I persist in regarding “politically correct” as merely a euphemism for “good breeding” – strike that! – “elementary thoughtfulness”) lies in fundamental insecurity and ignorance, with a dash of just making too many excuses in a mania to avoid being blamed. He’s not content to take well-aimed potshots, exploring many implications of the issue in many contexts, with a well-developed dramatic analysis.
Under extraordinarily savvy direction by Gregg T. Daniel (showing versatile chops after Wedding Band at Antaeus, Fences at ICT), no actor sets a foot wrong, confrontations crackle, and the rather ambitious scope of the play’s examination of its subject remains clear and precise. In his attempt at thoroughness, Kalleres does lapse a little into repetition (if always in pursuit of amplifying a point) and sometimes paints himself into a situational corner that Daniel’s resourceful transitions mask well. Despite the play’s essential malice, its intentions are constructive, and it helps to approach it with a thick skin and a spirit of good will.
The white characters tend toward caricature, if just barely, while the black ones are far more dimensional, opportunities which the ever-reliable and charismatic Moseley and Tudor seize impressively. Recent Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Stage Raw winner for best lead performer Matthew Hancock (Hit the Wall), playing admittedly generic types (he’s billed as “Kid 1”), nevertheless infuses each of his vignettes with original subtleties. Even so, everyone exhibits surprising shadings and layers even when saddled with stereotypical behaviors, abetted by a writer who may strand them in uncomfortable speeches yet still affords them escape hatches into humanity.
Following on Pocatello, Rogue Machine has obviously settled with renewed energy in the MET Theatre space, fondly remembered as the original 1970s home of the Los Angeles Actors Theater with its unforgettable presentations of plays by Miguel Pinero (Short Eyes), Richard Wesley and others. Some magic haunts the place, and RM’s first-cabin designers revel in its possibilities and considerably enhance the depth of Honky’s experience (one would speculate that a reading alone could easily fall flat).
Honky, Rogue Machine at The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029, (855) 585-5185, www.roguemachinetheatre.com, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., extended through July 17. Running time: 105 minutes (no intermission).