The Language of Race - Observations on "Honky" by Writer Greg Kalleres and Director Gregg Daniel

How about a play that pokes fun at tiptoeing around the subject of racism? And how about the effect racism may have on consumer buying? When a young African American is shot for a pair of basketball shoes, sales triple among Caucasian teenagers. And so begins HONKY, a satire on the symbiotic relationship between bigotry and commercialism. 

Award-winning Playwright Greg Kalleres received the Certificate of Excellence from the Kennedy Center and the Emerging Playwright Award for HONKY, a hilarious look at the rhetoric of race and today’s marketing, a potential minefield for politically incorrect slogans just waiting to happen. Award-winner for the 2014 Stage Raw Theatre Awards (Best Revival and Best Ensemble for “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White”), Gregg T. Daniel also received the Best Director nomination from the NAACP Theatre Awards for “Elmina’s Kitchen,” which won in the NAACP’s Best Ensemble category. Together, these two talents have teamed up for the Los Angeles premiere of HONKY, a play that is certainly thought provoking (between laughs, of course). 

HONKY opens at Rogue Machine Theatre on May 7, 2016, with Gregg T. Daniel directing. How do Caucasian playwright Greg Kalleres and African American director Gregg T. Daniel see HONKY and the way it deals with a political hot potato topic in today’s world?

 

Greg Kalleres, Playwright - HONKY

Is this a play about racism? Do you see it as a comedy? A satire? A tragedy? A little of all of the above? Was this your original plan, or did it evolve as you went along?   

Kalleres:  It’s a tragi-comic-satire about race. Is that a thing? Actually, I’d probably eliminate “tragi” from that. It’s not that “tragi.” There are some “serio” elements however.  Plays never seem to go as planned. But I did begin wanting to write about how we talk – or, more accurately, struggle to talk – about race. The words we say, or can’t say, or shouldn’t have said with that person in the room. A play where language was the antagonist. 

For you as the writer, when was the seed for this idea planted and how? What about the title, Honky? 

Kalleres:  For about 5 years I worked as a copywriter for a big advertising agency in New York. And I was struck by how white the industry was. Especially since we were so often targeting non-white demographics. What was fascinating was the difficulty people sometimes had discussing these demographics. It was as if they weren’t sure what it would sound like coming out of their mouths to say: “African American” or “black.” A few times I actually heard the term “Black African Americans.” Not sure if that was a stutter or just an attempt to cover their bases. But this discomfort, this awkwardness - and humor - is what I wanted to explore in this play.   

I chose the title HONKY for a couple of reasons. Least of which was because it’s funny. I know it’s a derogatory word term for a white person…but, as I told someone else, I think the last time that I heard it used without irony was in the movie “Death Wish 3.” And since it’s a comedy about language and race – HONKY seemed appropriate. Another reason for the title is that one of the main black characters named Thomas was teased by his childhood friends for growing up in a rich, white neighborhood. They’d call him “Honky.” And in that context – the word is offensive. Which is kind of interesting. 

Gregg Daniel, Director - HONKY

As a director, what was it that attracted you to this play? What was your biggest challenge in directing this piece? 

Daniel:  My attraction was definitely to the equal parts of this play that made me laugh and made me squirm. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of many of these situations that Greg Kalleres sets up in the play. Comments like, “He’s so articulate” or coded words that refer to a way of identifying a racial group. It just caught my eye. I was really interested in the examination of that and the fact that it was a comedy. It wasn’t something that bludgeoned you over the head with the subject – because people will retreat from that. They will shut down and not want to talk about race. So I thought the fact that Greg was using this intro to the conversation in a comedic way was refreshing. 

The biggest challenge in directing this piece was to NOT just go after the comedy. It’s a funny play, but the characters have to be rooted in a very real existence. Nobody is trying to be funny in the play; they are just coming across that way in these situations where something could be perceived very easily as an insult or not politically correct. When I spoke to the playwright about the play, he said, “Don’t chase the laughs.” That was spot on and easy to do with this excellent cast. 

Where did you grow up? Did growing up there affect your views on race? How? 

Kalleres:  The suburbs of Indianapolis. Which were – and probably still are – pretty white. I guess it affected my views on race if only because they were rarely challenged. 

Daniel:  I grew up in Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant, a pretty tough inner city area. I was from the first set of kids to bust out of our area and attend a much better high school – way out of Bed-Stuy. It was a beautiful high school, mostly Italian and black kids, so I was always very aware of race. It was also during a tumultuous time - when the Black Panther Party was operating. So, yes, I realized that it was a dangerous and sensitive subject; and I was always very aware of racism…I felt it.

 

Matthew Hancock - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Part of the conversation in the play seems to be about the commercialization of racism. Do you see that as a big issue in the way today’s businesses advertise? Have you seen any examples you’d like to mention? 

Kalleres:  I think race definitely plays into advertising. No question. Often, it’s in strange and unintentional ways. It’s an issue that probably comes up every 17 seconds behind the scenes. But if you’re asking if there’s a dark overlord manipulating people by blowing a racist dog whistle next to their product – no. It’s idiots like me just trying to write something cool for the client who just wants people to buy their silly gadget  But it’s there in the way it’s there in a conversation, or a look, or a word or emphasis. It’s systemic. Just look at politics right now. Actually, don’t look at it, it’s really depressing. 

Daniel:  It’s a play about racism and consumerism. Racism is a backdrop to the play, but it’s about the negotiation of language too. I like to think of it as the failure of language, especially when it comes to hot button issues. Americans have always had a hard time talking about race, so how do we negotiate reaching out and speaking to others about that. How do well-meaning people broach that subject so they don’t seem bigoted? It’s very complicated. I think race resonates the strongest, particularly in these times we live in. I haven’t seen the national consciousness focused this much on race since the civil rights movement.  

At the same time, I don’t think race has been overly commercialized. I do think it’s come to the forefront now because of the seismic changes in our national consciousness. We’ve had an African American President for eight years, and we’ve been examining the conduct of police in minority communities throughout the country. I think it’s been finally publicized, not overly commercialized. We’re all getting a taste of what minorities have seen for a long time. Particularly how law enforcement is skewed when it comes to people of color. But the only time you’re going to make a change is when you realize that there is a systemic institutionalized racism problem with different groups in our society. Talking about it is the way to start making a change. 

 

Matthew Hancock and Bruce Nozick - Photo by John Perrin Flynn

There’s research that suggests that people feel awkward talking about racial issues with people of different races. Have you found audiences to be receptive to the conversation about racism…and open to talking about it?  Is their laughter heartfelt or uncomfortable? 

Kalleres:  Both! Sometimes you’ll get an audience laughing so much the actors have to pause. And sometimes it’ll be dead silent. I found out later that this was because people were apparently laughing with their hands over their mouths. As if laughing next to the wrong person would out them as a racist. Which, if you know the play, is funny in itself. 

As for conversation…I think the best thing that’s come out of this play are the discussions that happen after it ends. I think this play gives people permission to talk about this stuff without fear of offending someone…because the play pretty much offends everyone. Except, the Greeks. I won’t go there. They’re going through a tough time right now. 

Daniel:  In a theater piece, it’s almost like people are given permission to say, “Okay, let’s discuss it.” Otherwise, people would be a lot more guarded talking about race. The mixed race cast was amazingly open to talking about their experiences. I think it gives people a forum to talk about it when they come to see a play like this. It’s a forum to air their thoughts about the subject. 

What do you hope that audiences will take away from seeing this production? 

Daniel:  I’m long past the point where I would even think about dictating what an audience might feel about it. But I do hope there are many different views expressed and that it serves as a catalyst, which often does arise from these incendiary topics. I hope that it helps to bring awareness and change. Just hearing the other person’s story - as we did when we first started rehearsing with the cast and asking them to talk about their personal experiences with prejudice and how it might have scarred them – can start the process. We’re talking white, black, female, even sexuality. It opened the conversation. If people could go wandering off into the night talking about the play and the issues that were set up in the play, I’d be very pleased.

What are some of the projects you’re working on currently? How about future projects? 

Kalleres:  I’m developing a TV series, adapting a play of mine for podcast, writing a new screenplay, my first musical; and I just finished the first draft of a new play that’s even more awkward than this one. I figure the chances are solid that at least one of these things will be good. Right?  

Daniel:  I’m flying to New Jersey the day after we open HONKY to start work at Cape May Stage on a play called “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez. It takes place during the Civil War. It’s a cast of three - one Caucasian who owned slaves before the Civil War and two blacks who were slaves before the war ended – so once again, I’m dealing with racial issues. 

Clearly, both Greg Kalleres and Gregg T. Daniel remain active in theater and will continue to entertain audiences in the future. Hopefully, they will also continue encouraging audiences to confront difficult issues. The HONKY ensemble includes Tasha Ames, Ron Bottitta, Matthew Hancock, Christian Henley, James Liebman, Burl Moseley, Bruce Nozick, and Inger Tudor, with Rebecca Larsen as an alternate.

 

HONKY opens on May 7 and runs through June 12, 2016, with performances at 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Rogue Machine is located at the Met Theater, 1089 N. Oxford Avenue, Los Angeles, CA. Tickets are $34.99. For information and reservations, call 855-585-5185 or go online at www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

 

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