Honky, in spite of its almost quaint name, is a fizzy new comedy of rare perception: witty, sharp and troubling. Playwright Greg Kalleres has a keen eye for the niceties of language and the nature of prejudice. Although the play is primarily about blacks and whites, mentally and physically disabled people also prove apt targets, with the occasional nod to Asians and Hispanics.
The central conceit is that a popular shoe among “urban” (i.e. black) youth has been the source of a young black man’s killing. From that event emerge several characters drawn together by their connection to the sneaker company, whose latest model, the Sky Max 16, is the lethally fashionable footwear. All the connections come close to seeming overly contrived; on the other hand, you might as easily say that Kalleres has plotted his play as tightly as Ibsen.
Davis Tallison, a white marketing executive (Philip Callen), is skeptical that the newest prototype, the 18, a multicolored sneaker designed by Thomas Hodge (Anthony Gaskins), who is black, will be a hit with urban youth. (The basketball sneaker, presumably designed by costumer Sarah Thea Swafford, is like a brightly colored map on one’s feet.) Meanwhile, though, Davis wants to market the Sky Max 16 to white suburban youth who identify with black urban youth because it’s cool—and because they are steeped in white guilt. The shooting is a setback that he needs to overcome.
Kalleres then shifts focus to Thomas’s sister Emilia (Arie Bianca Thompson), a psychotherapist who is treating Peter Trammell, the creator of the ad for the sneakers. In Dave Droxler’s masterful performance, Trammell is a bundle of frayed nerves whose emotions rise and fall with tsunami force from guilt at the killing, because he invented the company’s catch phrase for the sneaker, “’Sup?”: the byword was allegedly spoken by the shooter. Peter slices and dices meanings in every word someone utters, and anguishes over perceived or possible traces of prejudice in himself and others.
Kalleres’ sense of nonsense is sublime. In a session with his shrink, Peter tries to impress Emilia with an intellectual quotation. “‘The most monstrous monster is the monster with noble feelings,’” says Peter. “Faulkner.” “Dostoevsky,” says Emilia, correcting him. “I was close,” says Peter. “I knew it was someone I’d never read.” Peter’s constant straining to show his racial bona fides leads him into ridiculous situations. He claims that his mother marched with Dr. King, though in fact she overslept and missed the event. Meanwhile, his fiancée Andie puts up with to his hilariously self-flagellatory tirades, and Danielle Faitelson makes her character an ideal foil for them.
Kalleres doesn’t shy away from the “N” word or any other uncomfortable observations about race, including the stereotyping of black teenagers, the touchiness of interracial personal relations, and the absurdity of white guilt. “You want to talk about stereotypes?” Davis asks a mealy-mouthed psychotherapist (Scott Barrow). “We pay a premium for them. They’re called demographics.”
Barrow plays a variety of roles from a gun-toting Abraham Lincoln to one Dr. Driscoll, who has, crucially, invented a cure for all the rampant racism and prejudice on both sides of the color line. It’s a pill called Driscotol, and it numbs the racist part of the brain. “I don’t think I’m a racist,” Davis tells Driscoll in an exchange that might be from Joseph Heller. “Of course you don’t,” says Driscoll. “That’s precisely why you are one.” It’s a catch-22, of course, but it’s also symptomatic of the way both races often talk about the issue. Actors Chris Myers and Reynaldo Piniella take on various young black male characters, whose encounters with, variously, Peter and Davis, yield differing results.
As problems escalate, so does Kalleres’ wry satire. A group of white youths shoot a Greenwich, Conn., teenager to get his Sky Max 16s, and a news anchor notes that all of them “were wearing crooked baseball caps, extra large shirts, and baggy jeans. Some of the clothes were actually being worn backwards.”
Director Luke Harlan keeps the pace up (though scene changes are sometimes a bit awkward), but the play feels just a little long. And the inclusion of parallel plots involving interracial love seems overly schematic. It’s also too bad that Kalleres doesn’t offer any solution, but he sends up so many stereotypes so adroitly that the play sets one to thinking, at least, about this crucial hot topic. That easily makes it worthwhile.