March 27, 2013

"Honky" Has Good Fun with the Race Card

Honky, the provocatively named comedy now running at Urban Stages, kicks off with a not very funny incident: a black kid is killed for his sneakers and sales spike at the Nike-style company that makes them because the shooting makes white suburban teens regard the shoe as an authentic emblem of the black experience that so many of them want to imitate.

So it surprises me as much as it may surprise you that I found the show to be a smart and endearing look at the ways in which white and black people stereotype one another—and themselves. 

In fact, playwright Greg Kalleres’ tale has the kind of political-correctness-be-damned daring that reminded me of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s side-splitting satire that poked fun at the shibboleths of black culture back in 1986.  My friend Sydney and I laughed so hard when we saw it that we fell out of our seats (literally asses on the floor).

Honky isn’t quite as funny as that.  But it has its moments. Its characters include the white president of the company, the black guy who designed the shoe, the white ad man whose catchphrases made it popular, the ad man’s racially carefree girlfriend, a Buppy shrink, a two-person everyman chorus and the creator of a pill that promises to cure racism.

Their responses to the sales spike—varying degrees of liberal guilt and shameless self-interest—unfold in short scenes that bounce from the boardroom to the bedroom with stops along the way in affluent apartments, chic bars, the shrink’s office and the realm of magical realism.

All of these locales are smartly rendered by the clever stacking and restacking of simple black boxes that Roman Tatarowicz has devised for the set design, aided by the adroit video projections of Caite Hevner and lighting by Mirian Nilofa Crowe.

The actors are just as terrific and, under Luke Harlan’s sure-handed direction, nimble at navigating the tricky line Kalleres has drawn between being politically incorrect and being flat-out offensive (click here to read an interview with the playwright and director). 
The silver-haired men in blue blazers and the women with Ann Romney-style bouffants who showed up for the patrons night performance my sister and I happened to attend hardly seemed the target audience for Honky. And there was just a handful of black people in the audience that night. So the mix could have made for an awkward I-don’t-know-if-I-should-laugh situation.  But Honky is so disarming that none of us could help but chuckle along with it.

The play is far from being a cure for racism but it makes the case that the ability to laugh together is going to have to be part of the remedy

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