'Honky' takes on race relations off Broadway

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The thing about medicine is even when it's sweetened, it still tastes like medicine.

That's fine, especially if you get better. Or in this case, are made to think. "Honky" is, as the title suggests, an in-your-face play about race, sweetened with humor. And playwright Greg Kalleres is a sharp observer of human nature.

There are some excellent performances, particularly Thomas ( Anthony Gaskins) and some good lines. The play, which opened at Urban Stages Thursday (March 14), revolves around five main characters' attitudes toward race.

It opens with two actors, called upon to do a variety of parts, and in a well-choreographed scene, they're on a basketball court, until one fatally shoots the other.

The dead guy's sneakers were stolen and the other main characters all have connections to the sneakers. It's a clever connection to launch an examination of race, fashion trends that start in the hood and travel to the burbs, and white guilt.

Thomas designed the shoes, and had always deeply loved basketball shoes. His boss, Davis ( Philip Callen) a caricature of a white man, thinks these shoes would look better on clowns. He asks if Thomas would wear them, and he would, but Davis cannot understand what pants they would go with. It don't matter.

Davis doesn't care. All he cares about is getting white suburban kids to buy the sneakers because that's where the money would be. Davis also wants to usher along the sale of the company to Nike, which would mean serious money and shutter the small company.

Appalled at where Davis wants to take the company and trying to explain why these basketball shoes matter, Thomas says:

"Like every kid in the neighborhood, I developed an early obsession with sneakers. Sky Max 3's were my first pair. After that I was hooked. Fetishized them. Sometimes I'd hardly wear 'em. I'd just look at 'em. Feel 'em. Smell 'em. To this day, the smell of leather on a brand new shoe is the closest thing to true happiness that I know. And every year the new Sky shoe would come out in February, just before spring. It was the only thing that kids in my neighborhood, 'my people' could talk about. And the only time a kid got hurt was when he scuffed someone's s*** up. We loved Sky because it made no apologies. It was a black shoe for black people. And we saw a white kid wearin' 'em, he better be able to back his s*** up on the court, or he was gonna get his a** beat. There was a purity to it."


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Thomas had been responding to Davis' stilted remarks. In "Honky" the whites are incredibly awkward around the blacks. They stumble over their words and never know what to say.

Peter ( David Droxler), who is white, is racked with guilt because he wrote the commercial for the shoes, with a tagline of "'sup now?" He goes to see a psychiatrist, Emilia ( Arie Bianca Thompson), who is Thomas' sister. 

Peter is so stunned to be talking to a black psychiatrist he babbles for a while. His Connecticut fiancee, Andie, ( Danielle Faitelson) is, even in Peter's words "the whitest woman" he knows. She also has no filter between her not-so-sharp brain and mouth and spouts off constantly. Andie, however, is not mean. She also falls for Thomas.

The play goes around as Davis and Thomas spar over the sneakers; Thomas is disturbed by the notion of selling out; Peter thinks that his commercials are responsible for violence, and Emilia tries to deal with the problems of whomever comes to see her. 

Meanwhile -- in case we needed more layers -- there is a magical drug that replicates brain injury and the side effect is an antidote to racism.

Though Scott Barrow ably handles the role of the doctor pushing the panacea to racism, this plot line detracts from the better aspects of the play, the characters' relationships to one another. Among the pill's side effects are hallucinations. 

Davis has Fredrick Douglass visit him and Douglass sounds a lot like Chris Rock -- in concert, not when he's cleaning up his act for broadcast TV. Abraham Lincoln not only visits Emilia, but comes on to her. 

Yes, this is an off-Broadway production, and stranger things have happened on Broadway, but that doesn't mean it works. The play is uneven; the black characters feel a lot more real and nuanced than the whites.

There is still enough to like about "Honky" and Miriam Nilofa Crowe's lighting design should be praised as it backs up a piece of work that will, at least, get people thinking.

Any time we discuss racism and confront hatred, it is bound to help. The audience mostly seemed to be having a good time. I could just never escape the feeling that it was heavy on the polemics, which made it feel like grape-flavored medicine.
Photo/Video credit: Ben Hider