TIMES OF SAN DIEGO
How do we talk about race in America? We don’t.
But as you can tell from its title, “Honky,” playwright Greg Kalleres goes where others fear to tread.
All the unprintable, unspeakable, un-PC words are there. Black/white conversations are awkward, often stereotyped and bigoted (in both directions). People say what they think, not what they’ve self-censored. And what they often think is sensitive, their listeners may find patronizing and prejudiced. Only by learning what’s wrong can we learn what’s right, in the playwright’s view. So he lets it all hang out, in a 100-minute linguistic free-for-all. Did I mention it’s funny? Very.
Kallares based his play on his experiences writing ad copy for sports corporations, added to the horrific 1989 incidents incited by the expensive and wildly popular Air Jordans.
Here, it’s a New York company called Sky Shoes, whose new, eye-searing neon sneakers have led to the robbery and murder of an African American 14 year-old. What ensues is white guilt (the copy writer), black guilt (the designer) and various self-questioning others. As the company tries to expand its demographic, the ubiquity of the offensive ad spreads to the murder of white teens, too.
San Diego REP artistic director Sam Woodhouse has assembled a pitch-perfect cast to bring the comedy to heavy-breathing life; each is a wholly believable character, from the neurotically hyper honky, Peter (a role that could have been written for Francis Gercke), to the angry black designer, Thomas (magnificent Gerard Joseph), who’s beating himself up for creating the “urban” shoes (euphemism for inner city African American) for a white business and boss (excellent James Newcomb).
Both Peter and Thomas are confronted and/or assaulted on the subway by a pair of tough black kids (thoroughly convincing DeLeon Dallas and Cortez L. Johnson). Disturbingly, even when they talk intelligently and sport prep-school khakis and blazers, they wind up robbing their victim at gunpoint.
By the end, the boss, the employees, and the psychiatrist will all be accused of racism. Peter’s ditsy fiancée (hilarious Jacque Wilke) is the most naively honest character. Ultimately, all the rest will be offered a new pill that cures the pervasive malady of racism. That sounds sillier than it plays.
The new drug is enthusiastically promoted by a sleazy doctor (flawlessly portrayed by Jacob Bruce) and the former Sky boss (Newcomb). Among the interesting side-effects of the medication are hallucinations of omniscient and surprisingly hip historical figures (superbly played by DeLeon Dallas and Jacob Bruce) that haunt the Caucasian boss and the African American psychiatrist (lovely, grounded Tanya Alexander).
The outstanding set (Sean Fanning) beautifully supports the action. Pieces and panels are moved about by the actors to create the many locations, with projections (Daniel Cariño) evocatively establishing locales.
Kalleres is pushing all kinds of buttons here, touching super-sensitive spots, uncovering uncomfortable truths. And doing it all with wit, sparkle and humor. The sane conversations and the wacky situations are fertile ground for substantive discourse. Plan for a lively post-show drink and discussion.
The Southern California premiere of “HONKY” runs through December 7, at THE San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
Performances are Tuesday-Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm, and Saturday & Sunday at 2pm.
Running Time: 100 min. (no intermission)
Tickets ($18-$75) are at 619-544-1000;www.sdrep.org
©2014 PAT LAUNER