NY Theater Review Sandi Durell
You must have heard at least one of these sayings growing up – spare the rod, spoil the child – children are to be seen but not heard. That’s how it was in the Pentecostal household in Pittsburgh where young Calvin was growing up with a bunch of women and an abusive stepfather. But it was more than that – the young man was black and also gay and living with a family (except for his sister) that found it unacceptable.
This is the crux of the story, written by Tony Award winner Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), lovingly directed by Sheryl Kaller at Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street.
Mother, Maxine, walks with a limp and has a disability. She’s played by a strong, powerful S.Epatha Merkerson, a deeply religious, devoted, but judgmental, church going woman who finds it impossible that her son is gay, refusing to accept that God would make him that way as he implores – “this is who I am!”
Busy in the kitchen are a not too pleasant, Auntie Dee, Maxine’s sister (Elain Graham) who we eventually find out is hiding a secret (don’t want to be a spoiler on this). Calvin’s younger sister Tonya (Sheria Irving), acts as narrator, starting out as a sweet little thing, unaware of the trials and tribulations of having a gay brother until we see her age into a pragmatic skeptic about God and religion and with a good sense of humor. They all live in Grandma Gertrude’s house, a caring Lillias White who loves her Calvin unconditionally.
Then there’s Maxine’s husband Vernon, (Kevyn Morrow), a gruff master of the house ready to beat Calvin into submission. Calvin (Larry Powell) has a happy countenance, always ready with a quip and a hug, until he’s confronted one too many times by Vernon who calls him ‘boy.’
Maxine’s church friend Eva (Sharon Washington) has come to join the family for dinner; she is ill and dying of cancer, and having lost her job, works as a cleaning lady at the Church, revealing that she has slept with the Pastor.
Everyone’s troubles and stories keep tumbling forth. But Calvin’s is the most ominous having suffered sexual abuse at the hand of Vernon unbeknownst to Maxine. Calvin leaves the home to pursue his theatrical interests, finally becoming a Broadway success, and the storyline continues in flashbacks of one on one conversations between the various family members, some of them now dead. The time lapse doesn’t happen smoothly as we move to seven years later as Grandma, now deceased, speaks to Dee from the grave; Maxine’s physical condition has worsened as she calls Dee an “ungrateful bitch;” Vernon has also passed on and is a ghost having a spiritual conversation with his ‘baby girl’ – Tonya.
By Act II, another seven years down the road, we find Maxine in a wheelchair trying to control her shaking, moments of levity are thrown in as she wants to know how she looks, agreeing that red is her color. Vernon and Calvin are having a spiritual conversation as Calvin demands his childhood back, and Vernon wants to make it up to him.
In the revealing monologues, Maxine eventually comes to understand and Calvin to forgive her, his sister and the family of women who raised him.
The performances are mostly evenly powerful and, at times, funny and heart-breaking especially Ms. Merkerson who is outstanding in her evolution from the judgmental woman to one respectful of the sensitivities of differences. However, there’s a jarring disconnect in the transitions of time lapse and ethereal conversations that meander on and just don’t work, losing clarity and causing confusion.
James Noone has captured the two level comfy Pittsburgh house with a player piano (?) giving us a window into the workings of the entire family. Costumes are by ESOSA with lighting by Kevin Adams.
Billy Porter has worked on this piece for 7 years, a catharsis one might say, written with insight into the human condition. He describes it as a “love letter to my mother, my sister, and the women who raised me.” He obviously has much to offer as a playwright and just needs time and patience to continue growing as such.
While I Yet Live – thru October 31st The Duke on 42nd Street, NYC 646 223-3010 www.Dukeon42.org
*Photos: James Leynse