San Diego, CA—Remember the riddle “What’s black and white and red (read) all over”? Well, Greg Kalleres’ Southern California Premiere of “Honky” now being staged at the San Diego Repertory Theatre through Dec. 7th is just that; black and white with red (not read) flags screeching ALERT! ALERT, this is a play about race in case you might have missed the headlines.
“Many a true word is spoken in jest”. (“The Monks Tale” by Chaucer). Perhaps that’s how Kalleres felt when writing his 100-minute play “Honky”. It’s a fast paced, multi faceted spin on the inner workings, perceptions and truths about how and what the other half thinks about how and what the other half thinks about race.
It’s funny with laugh a minute punch lines that oft times speaks the truth, stereotypes characters, yet in the end says what most already know, unless of course you’ve been in a coma for the past six or even 50 years
Some of the gag lines are so blatant and raw that jaws drop but in the end it feels as though we are in middle of an incomplete sentence. There is no good ending here so the playwright changes course. In fact at the end of the play, one of the characters can barely get out a whole sentence or thought before he is reduced to arm waving. To be honest I needed a few seconds to gather my thoughts as well.
The play takes place in New York City and basketball shoes; you know the ones worn mostly by black basketball heroes, is the focus. The catalyst that drives this irreverent almost off the charts play is the idea that shoes worn by black gang members should also be appealing to white kids as well. This idea sets off a time bomb that reverberates across the advertising world of…shoes.
The shoes are called ‘Sky Max’ (they could have been Air Jordan’s in another time frame). African-American shoe designer Thomas is played with perfect nuance by Gerard Joseph. Joseph plays almost three different personalities; brother, lover and designer. He excels in crossing over in each instance keeping pace overall.
The shoes are marketed by a white firm, which claims to be a company ‘by black people for black people’. It is in fact headed by Davis a passionate James Newcomb. He is over the top convincing as the hyper boss/driver and marketing guru. Davis tries to convince Thomas about ‘urban’ marketing but gets caught up in his rhetoric.
The marketing jingle for this particular add campaign is written by Peter. Francis Gercke gives another of his quirky performances that fits the bill nicely. He is also white and ends up traveling that path of white guilt that we will witness as the play proceeds.
When a young black teenager is killed for his Sky Max shoes the entire shoe network selling Sky Max is turned inside out. Sales triple among white teenagers but the domino effect among those in the trade takes a tumble into no man’s land of racism, rhetoric and remorse. It just so happens that during the execution of the crime, the killer yelled out the add slogan written by Peter.
Peter ends up in therapy with white guilt over the fact that an African-American teenager was killed for his coveted shoes based on his slogan. He is led into, gasp, the office of Emilia Hodge, an African-American therapist. Tanya Alexander’s Emilia is perfect as she juggles her professional conscience with her African-American instincts as therapist. BTW, she just happens to be Thomas’s sister. That’s a whole other story.
Thomas has a racial moment of rage and revenge (black guilt) when the killing occurs and consciously decides (after he realizes who she is) to date Peter’s white girlfriend Andie. Jacque Wilke is at her absolute best as the ditzy and painfully honest ‘white gal’, Andie whose dialogue is so refreshing, wrong and funny and with timing so on the minute that you almost forget how offensive she/it is.
Davis has a meltdown and gives up the shoe campaign and is now marketing a new anti-racism pill that causes hallucinations (Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass make cameo appearances). It’s a nutty, wacky and fun filled looney-tunes ride.
Rep’s artistic director Sam Woodhouse is having a field day with Kalleres’ “Honky”. He has also assembled an ace cast to represent each side/opinion/race and that includes Kid-1 and Kid-2 (Deleon Dallas and Cortez L. Johnson) the stereotypes that corner Peter, Davis and Thomas in the subway.
Depending on their attire (Valerie Henderson), conversation and attitude we are called upon to gauge, from our own stereotypical lens, opinion and attitude, whether we (as whites) would feel comfortable being alone in a subway station with either or both Kid-2 or Kid-2. In the end however, most watching those scenes (my assumption) are led down the primrose path into second guessing the playwright. That is a mistake!
Sean Fanning’s multipurpose fold out set gets a boost from Daniel Cariño’s fabulous projections, Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting design and Kevin Anthenill’s sound design (think Rocky). The whole piece went by so fast that in the end I found myself almost as tongue tied as Gercke’s Peter.
Playwright Greg Kalleres, himself an add copywriter for sporting goods for five years. He was at the scene of the 1989 senseless killing of a young teen over a pair of Air Jordans.
While not saying it out loud, “Honky” taps into some or all of our base fears… of the ‘other’. Playing it out as farce may ease the conscience, but that just pushes the conversation back a few decades.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Dec7th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $31.00
Venue: Lyceum Space