interview by NILINA MASON-CAMPBELL
What’s in a name?
A single word can come loaded with history, pain and intention — capable of being wielded as a weapon. It also carries the ability to convey respect, forge new foundations and build bridges. There’s a power to language that goes beyond the breath it takes to speak its syllables.
Playwright Greg Kalleres‘ play, Honky, explores the intersection of language, race, and commercialism. After a black teen is murdered for his footwear, the crime triggers a surge in sales among a parallel demographic: white teenagers. With that situation as a springboard, Honky uses comedy to tackle the uncomfortable topic of racial tension that presently faces America’s population at large.
The play has been brought to life in Los Angeles by Rogue Machine Theatre in its new home at the MET Theatre. Rogue Machine’s rendition of Honky is its first staging in Los Angeles after having been produced at a half dozen stages across the nation since its debut. The company began developing the production locally in 2014, prior to Rogue Machine’s move from its longtime home on Pico Boulevard. Director Gregg Daniel and Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn helm this staging.
Following Honky’s premiere on May 7 and a string of sold-out performances, the play’s run has been extended until June 26th.
GREG KALLERES: Language was the first aspect for me. How uncomfortable people are when talking about race. The weight that some words carry — and in what context. Especially in advertising, where there’s a sort of coded language designed for this. Instead of “stereotypes,” it’s “demographics.” Instead of “African American” or “Hispanic,” it’s “urban.” Take all of that and combine it with the fact that most people who work in advertising are white… and it makes for a very fertile, potentially comic examination of race and marketing.
One very specific inspiration came during a casting conversation with the client who wanted to “up the number of African Americans” in the spot. But he didn’t want to “over do it.” I believe the number 2.5 was thrown out. So the room spent ten minutes trying to figure out the racial arithmetic without saying anything stupid. Which was impossible. “Two adult African Americans and a child? Three African Americans but in the background? One just very large African American next to an Asian?” It was horrible. And hilarious. Finally one young client raised his hand like he had just figured out string theory and shouted: “I got it! A mulatto! Two birds one stone!” The entire room went silent. After a few painfully silent moments his boss said, “You can’t say that word.” The subordinate then turned to his colleague, the one person of color in the entire room and said: “You totally can say that! Right, Gil?” To which Gil replied, head in hands, “Man, just leave me out of this.”
I knew I wanted it to be a comedy about race through the lens of sneaker advertising. I also knew I wanted language to play the antagonist. But I thought it was just going to be a simple dark comedy about a white guy writing commercials for a black shoe company. Instead, every time I wrote one scene, something else would be left unexplored. And so a new character would appear. And then another and another. Until it became a larger, messier, more absurd, more ensemble play.
The advertising company I was working for at the time was kind of enough to let me take a three month sabbatical to write the play. And so I completed the first draft in that time. But the play continued to evolve through various readings and up until the first production seven years later.
I don’t know about my earliest, but I remember the most affecting. I was in the playwriting program at NYU and wrote a satirical piece for the newsletter called, “Memoirs of the Self-Deprecating White Supremacist.” It was an absurdist comedy about a kid who wants to impress his white supremacist father but is horrible at being racist. He misspells KKK, has a black friend, loves Stevie Wonder. You get the idea. But when the piece came out, it was stripped of all the jokes. So it looked like it was a true story about my life growing up as a bona fide racist. I went to the editor, a black female grad student, and asked her why she took out the jokes that identified it as a satire. She said, “because they got in the way of your brave, true story.” And I said, “But it’s not true! It’s a satire about race! It’s all a joke!” She looked at me with such anger and frustration and confusion. And then very quietly said, “You fucking white people.” And ran out.
I was 20, white, from Indiana and very non confrontational — so I freaked out. I ran after her and we had a conversation about it. Cleared the air for the most part. But I never thought about race the same way again. I never took for granted that we all see things the same way, no matter how similarly we grew up, what education we had, or shows we watch. This country does not look the same to all of us. This play might be as much of a reaction to that moment as it was to my experience in advertising.
I’m often drawn to subjects that make me uncomfortable — and race seems to make everyone uncomfortable. It’s such a strange and sensitive subject on so many levels in this country, which makes it endlessly fascinating. One thing I’ve learned from watching audiences respond to this play is that everyone has their own specific and personal relationship to race. For example, one person might think a line in the play is hilarious while the person next to them finds the same line offensive, or embarrassing, or even sad. And then with the next line, it will flip flop. It’s such a deep seeded and complex issue. And so absurd! Because there’s no practical reason skin color should be such a difficult issue to navigate socially. And yet… just look around.
Honky‘s the last thing I’ve written directly about race, but I do write a lot about identity. Which, I think, sprung from that exploration. Not just who we are but why it matters. And why it matters that it matters.
It’s a hot topic because there’s a large faction of this country who want permission to be hateful. And in this election they’ve found a candidate who offers them a free pass. But you’re not braver or more honest or “real” by saying you’re not PC. You’re just a dick. Ignorant and insensitive. Are there limits? Sure. Yes. God knows some people are offended by the silliest things. But there’s nothing admirable about offending an entire group of people. Nothing courageous about ignoring a history or a culture because you find it inconvenient or restrictive of your god-given liberties to express yourself. Words have weight. They have meaning. Beyond what your own experience tells you. So, basically, just don’t be an asshole.
But that’s my personal view.
In the play, political correctness is “thrown out” because it’s exploring this issue. What we can say, what we can’t say and what we shouldn’t say with that person in the room. It’s about language without knowledge. It’s about the awkward phase we’re in in this country with regard to race. It’s not just a matter of us not talking about it. It’s about not knowing how.
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the play never had another title. It refers to the character of Thomas — a successful shoe designer conflicted about his identity as a black man. He grew up in a wealthy, white suburb of New Jersey, and his black friends from the poorer neighborhood used to make fun of him by calling him “Honky.” Which, ironically, has more weight in that context than when it’s used for a white person. As a comedy about language and race, the title seemed appropriate. A word that may have had some power at some point… but is now rarely used without irony.
That said, a white guy wrote a letter to the newspaper in San Diego, saying he would never see a play with such an offensive title. So, there you go.
It was a long, winding, bumpy, often hidden path. I wrote the play ten years ago (yes, before Obama was president), and it wasn’t until seven years of readings and submissions and rejections and workshops and writing a number of other plays that I finally gave up on it. Two years later, Urban Stages called — an off-Broadway theater in New York — wanting to do a workshop. And then a production. And then they remounted it. I owe them a lot. They took a chance on a risky play. And we had had a fantastic production and cast. The director, Luke Harlan, and I were very much on the same page and had so many great conversations about how to get the play into fighting shape.
Now that the play has been produced a few times you would think I’d get tired of seeing it – but this production at Rogue Machine is something special. I couldn’t be happier with what Gregg [Daniels] and this cast have done with the play. Felt like seeing it for the first time. I even laughed out loud a few times — which I never do in my own plays!
It’s funny, I think a lot of people, when they read the play, aren’t sure if it’s supposed be funny. Or if it even should be funny. One black actress we auditioned said she laughed out loud reading it. But then gave it to two of her black friends to make sure it was okay to find it funny. Which, if you know the play, couldn’t be more perfect.
My father fed us all a steady diet of Woody Allen and Muddy Waters… so growing up, I had a distinctly overblown sense of my own suffering and self-loathing. Which probably answers both of those questions.
God, that’s going to be a long list. I’ve always been drawn to the absurd. So, my early comedy influences were mostly Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Richard Pryor, SNL, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy and Ronald Reagan.
NOW PLAYING: HONKY by Rogue Machine Theatre, through June 26.
When a young African American is shot for a pair of basketball shoes, sales triple among white teens. Are ghetto-glorifying commercials to blame for the violence, or are they just part of a smart, targeted marketing plan? Luckily, there’s a new pill for sale, guaranteed to cure racism. Taking a satiric look at the symbiotic relationship between bigotry and commercialism, Honky is a comedy about navigating the murky waters of race, rhetoric and athletic footwear.