If laughter is indeed the best medicine for what ails us, then anyone afflicted with racism would do well to check out the latest from Rogue Machine, Greg Kalleres’s foul-mouthed and fabulous satirical comedy Honky. (And if you think the R-word doesn’t apply to you, then you clearly haven’t heard Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.”)
A copycat murder was the furthest thing on the mind of ad whiz Peter Trammel (James Liebman) when he came up with Sky Max’s latest campaign to spike its basketball shoe sales, but a TV commercial featuring an urban black teen “shooting” another boy with the Sky Max 16 has indeed been blamed for the death of an African-American teen shot for his shoes, the commercial’s closing line “Sup now” having been the last words out of the killer’s lips before pulling the trigger.
Equally distraught about the street murder is the shoe’s African-American designer Thomas Hodges (Burl Moseley), a young man whose childhood dream came true the day he started working for Sky Max, a company run “by black people for black people,” or at least such had been the case until white CEO Davis Tallison (Bruce Nozick) was brought on board to expand sales to “suburban white kids who literally won’t wear anything, listen to anything, say anything unless it’s been legitimized by blacks first.”
Not that Thomas shares all that much in common with the brand’s longtime boys-in-the-hood target buyers, having grown up in a privileged New Jersey suburb alongside his sister Emilia (Inger Tudor), now Peter’s therapist.
As for Emilia’s newest patient, despite some awkward efforts to convince his shrink that he’s not even a little bit racist, Peter finds it hard not to see her as African-American first, therapist second, though even if that were so, it wouldn’t make him a racist like his Aunt Judy, whom he insists “you can’t blame … because she grew up poor, so it doesn’t really count.”
Peter is not the only white character to put foot in mouth.
His girlfriend Andie blurts out whatever pops into her pretty blonde head, social filter be damned, telling one African-American character with more than a bit of envy, “You can make fun of anyone! Well, not Native Americans but they’re not that funny anyway.” And Davis assumes he can get away with just about everything because of where he was raised. (“I’m not making you uncomfortable, am I? ‘My people,’ ‘your people.’ I grew up in Chicago.”)
Fortunately for all concerned, a certain Dr. Driscoll (Ron Bottitta) has come up with a medical solution for the racism that seems to plague just about everyone in Honky, white or black, though sadly for those who take it, “Driscotol” comes with one pesky side effect: some pretty darned hilarious hallucinations involving (but not limited to) a couple of black-and-white Civil War-era historical figures.
Gregg T. Daniel keeps things moving so lickety-split, Honky’s intermissionless hundred minutes zip by in a flash. (Even set changes snap, crackle, and pop to a hip-hop beat.) And the performances he has elicited from an all-around stellar cast could not be sharper, funnier, or more exciting.
Moseley anchors Honky with leading man charisma and charm, whether bristling at his racially insensitive boss (a deliciously bombastic Nozick) or commiserating with a sister (Tudor, a comedic delight) who must keep reminding herself that her patients aren’t “white people. They’re just people with problems.”
Liebman scores laughs galore as a man who at the very least means well, and his scatterbrained girlfriend is brought to effervescent life by the absolutely irresistible Ames, who like a young Goldie Hawn can be as deep as she is ditzy.
Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s snazzy movable screens provide not only a frame for Nicholas E. Santiago’s exciting video/projection design but rotate to reveal assorted hidden surprises. Naila Aladdin Sander’s eclectic bevy of costumes, Dan Weingarten’s electrifying lighting design, and Jeff Gardner’s hip-hop-infused sound design add to the excitement, as does Eliana Fuller’s hi-NRG choreography.
Honky is produced by John Perrin Flynn and production manager Amanda Mauer. Summer Grubaugh is assistant director. Ramón Valdez is stage manager. David Mauer is technical director. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman.
It’s risky business writing about race these days. Fortunately, all but the most easily offended can rejoice at the arrival of the outrageously entertaining, provocative, enlightening, shocking, sidesplitting, conversation-starting theatrical firecracker that is Greg Kalleres’s Honky.
Rogue Machine @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. www.roguemachinetheatre.com
May 22, 2106
Photos: John Flynn