Honky, playing through April 7th at Urban Stages, asks whether any word can be as offensive to white people as the “N-word” is to black people, and the answer is, “the R-word.” No one who is under fifty and lives north of Maryland wants to be called a racist. For that matter, not many folks south of the Mason-Dixon line like being called racists anymore. But as Mr. Kalleres’s characters discover, just saying you’re not a racist doesn’t mean you aren’t one deep inside.
The curtain rises on a pantomime of two black, urban teens playing basketball. As in a symbolic ritual of battle, the two clash like video game titans until one takes off his tennis shoe and holds it like a gun at the head of the other. The lights go out as the shoe/gun wielding teen asks “S’up now?”; and the ritual is sanctified with human sacrifice.
When the lights come up, Davis Tallison (Philip Callen) a white, middle-aged ad exec tells Thomas Hodge (Anthony Gaskins), the principle designer for Sky Shoes and a black man, that Davis was brought on board as the head of marketing to sell Hodge’s signature Sky Max line to white teens. Davis admits that a recent black-on-black murder over the shoes, mimicking the violent Sky Max ad we saw in the pantomime, will only help sell the shoes to whites. White guilt, he says, is like kryptonite to their target demographic. “Black kid shoots someone for a pair of our shoes,” says Davis, and “white kid says ‘now that’s something real! Something authentic!’” Thomas is horrified and asks Davis what will happen to the brand when white kids turn murder into a commodity? Won’t it lose its authenticity? “In ten years we sell the ‘Whoot There It Is’ retro shoe,” says Davis.
Meanwhile, Andie (Danielle Faitelson) confesses to her fiancée Peter (Dave Droxler) that her therapist is helping her recover a repressed memory of possible sexual abuse. She is planning their wedding, and she expresses mock horror at her mother’s suggestion that the man she thinks may have molested her should officiate the ceremony. First world problems! Peter isn’t listening. He is racked with guilt over the killing prompted by the “S’up now” ad. As its author he feels responsible for the murder. To deal with his guilt, Peter has been to see Emilia (Arie Bianca Thompson), a therapist who happens to be a black woman and Thomas Hodge’s sister.
Back at the office Wilson, a white, upper-management type at Sky Shoes, meets with Davis to break some bad news: Davis has been accused of racism by other employees. Davis freaks out. “You wanna talk about stereotypes?“ he asks. “We pay a premium for them. They’re called demographics.” Wilson tells Davis he’s going to need some sensitivity training, and that means he’s going to have to see Dr. Driscoll. Driscoll has just invented a pill that promises to cure racism. When Davis meets the good doctor, he explains that his drug works by paralyzing the region of the brain that processes color perception.
Dr. Driscoll tells Davis that the mantra around the Driscotol office is “One who thinks, is. One who does not think, is. But one who is not one, thinks he is.” Driscotol, like many legal psychotropic drugs on sale these days (e.g. Ativan and Ambien), has side effects — though Driscotol’s are more, um, colorful. The pill makes Davis see a streetwise, jive-talking, Frederick Douglass apparition late at night, who convinces him to educate himself on the Plight of the Black Man. Significantly, Emilia, a black professional, also takes the pill to see past her disdain for her white patients’ “first world problems.” A drunken, lecherous Abe Lincoln appears to her like a vision from a Dickens parody. Dr. Driscoll’s mantra nicely sums up white guilt, but why does Emelia take the drug, unless she’s also a racist?
Like Clybourn Park, Honky relies on dramatic irony structured through the white and black characters’ parallel experiences of race to make an unconventional argument about racism in Obama’s America. In the twentieth century, racism meant a hostile or indifferent white attitude toward blacks. Whites had the luxury of being racists because they lived in a white world, but blacks, as a persecuted minority, had to be sensitive to the feelings and opinions of whites. The twenty-first century, however, will see the end of a numerical white majority in the U.S. This demographic fact has made some whites nervous enough to say out loud, in public that white men are in danger of being persecuted.
The folks Peter represents — well-educated, well-paid white liberals — scoff at this idea. Blacks’ experience of historical struggle, their pain from slavery to ghettoization, makes them authentic. In contrast, whites distinguished themselves as a race by inventing The Evil Capitalist Culture Machine, which eats anything authentic and pure and turns it into schlock. Most everyone acknowledges that capitalism is soul killing, and the language used by both blacks and whites to describe their differences show this. Blacks “keep it real,” and value “flava” because they know their style can never be replicated by suckas. White culture, on the other hand, is suffused with individuality killing universals: fetishized technology, adherence to rules, and the belief that all human beings are basically the same.
As I have argued elsewhere, this is a derivative version of the struggle between believers in the European Enlightenment and the adherents of Romanticism. In the seventeenth century, after the wars of religion soaked Europe with the tears of widows and orphans, a few cold-blooded English guys and their continental friends invented a way of talking about the world without emotion for the express purpose of making life better through technology. One unfortunate side effect of the Enlightenment was a scientific rationale for colonialism that treated humans as atoms in a material universe and not as individual sparks of the divine fire. This innovation not only made possible the justification of institutional racism, it also created the conditions for liberalism gone wrong – the Great Society welfare programs that humiliated African-Americans and created monsters like Claireece “Precious” Jones and her mother.
Honky (like Clybourn Park) goes against the grain of traditional racial arguments by saying the Enlightenment imperative — to make things into objects of scrutiny and manipulation through discourse — isn’t an essentially white activity. Emilia’s job as a psychologist makes her suppress her hatred of whites with the same pill Davis must take to satisfy his corporate overlords. Thomas lies about his own racial authenticity while fetishizing the shoes that are the source of black-on-black violence. Honky gives the impression that black people are no more empathetic or authentic as the result of their suffering, and they are just as materialistic, if not more so, than whites. James Twitchell argues that crass materialism is common to all “human beings” — men, women, black, white, ancient and modern. We “love things,” and more to the point, we love people who are things, that is, human commodities. In the twenty-first century we call them celebrities, though in earlier ages they were called slaves.
Oftentimes we commodify ourselves, but we never, ever like to think that our property right over our self-things is “alienable,” which is why, according to Jefferson, we are born with inalienable rights. And yet this is exactly what Davis says to Thomas: “No one owns their pain! The second you use it for currency, it’s lost forever.” Converting the pain that makes you an individual into a commodity is the great miracle of late-stage capitalism, and once your individuality, your privacy, your interiority, your soul has been sold, you can’t take it back by calling foul. We must infer, then, that Honky is a rebuke of Spike Lee’s insistence that Quentin Tarantino cannot legitimately use the “N word.” As soon as it became a staple of commodified black culture, it became a coin that is “something, nothing; / ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.” That’s the problem with money: it doesn’t stay put, and it doesn’t care who has it.
Honky would be a must-see play for the story alone, but the production up now at Urban Stages make it an absolute must-see. Luke Harlan’s direction is award-winning. The stage, sound and light design are so economical they will make a Marginalist cream his jeans. And the actors — certainly the principles, but especially Chris Myers and Reynaldo Piniella who play Kid 1 and Kid 2 — are unbelievably funny. Catch this one now before it makes its way to Broadway, and you’re priced out of a ticket, like the self-hating, hipster culture vulture you are.