Against expectations, the honky in the title refers not to some white racist clown but to the play’s pivotal character: a middle-class African-American, Tom Hodge (Burl Moseley), whose relative privilege, back in the day, drew scorn from the poorer black kids he went to school with, prompting them to saddle him with the epithet. Tom’s grown up to become a successful fashion designer whose splashy sports shoes are a hit with black urban youth. When the play opens, however, Tom’s been thrown off his guard when a black kid is murdered by another youth who'd coveted his shoes, a spectacularly kaleidoscopic pair designed by Tom. The boy’s death has also rattled a Caucasian ad writer named Peter (James Liebman) the composer of the catchy ad jingle that headlined the campaign for this trendy product. Consumed on any given day with white guilt, the well-meaning but slack-spined Peter suffers a major panic attack, seeking help from Emilia (Ingrid Tudor) a therapist he’s never met. He grows even more panicky when, at their first session, he discovers she’s black; he’s then unable to complete a session without making profuse apologies to her for his whiteness, unwittingly revealing the stereotypical views he harbors beneath the surface.
Perhaps the main villain of the piece is unsavory commercialism. One of the highlights of this production is Bruce Nozick’s portrayal of Davis, a slimy ad executive brought in to expand the product’s demographic to white middle-class kids, and remorseless in exploiting the recent death to do so. Another standout is Tasha Ames’ as Peter’s obtuse fiancee Andie, whom Peter describes to Emilia as “very white.” It’s not until we get to know Andie that we understand how many tiers of mindless ignorance this characterization is meant to encompass.
The production is also charged by the voltaic performances of Christian Henley and Matthew Hancock as a pair of predatory ghetto guys whose intimidating realness make both Tom and Peter seem like wilted flowers by comparison. The duo shows up at various junctures to intimidate whatever hapless citizen strays onto their turf. Ron Bottitta scores in multiple roles: as a company executive tasked with reining in the tactlessly bigoted Davis, and as a scientist marketing Driscotol, a pill guaranteed to eradicate those pesky racist feelings.
Kalleres’ script is spot on in its probe of the anxieties about race that beset even the most adult and bias-free among us, and takes an interesting ironic twist when it turns out that the frivolously candid Andie is actually the most color-blind among them all. Unfortunately, both Tom and Peter are too thinly etched in performance, and the production’s knockout punch is markedly less forceful than it might have been otherwise.
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