Peter wrote an ad for a basketball sneaker, the Sky Max. Told to target “urban” youth from 14 to 24, he assumed that meant young black men and invented the expression “sup now?” He thought it sounded authentic.
It did. Enough to get 14-year-old African-American Charley Cross shot in the face for his costly footwear.
Sky Shoes advertises itself as a company “by black people for black people.” But President Davis Tallison (James Newcomb) is a white man who couldn’t care less about the shooting, or stereotyping. “You want to talk about stereotypes? We pay a premium for them. They’re called demographics.” Davis says he isn’t racist but, according to an advisor, “If you don’t think you’re a racist, then you are.”
Greg Kalleres’ satire plays like jagged fingernails on shifting chalkboards. At times it seems he’s having fun writing every hate-laced word he can drum up. But his satire has a positive intent. He can’t exorcise racist language, but he can at least alert audiences to inflammatory slurs that, whether deliberate or subliminal, use words as weapons.
Kalleres worked as a copywriter for shoe companies “like Nike and Jordan,” which aimed their ads to young African-Americans. “I find it fascinating,” he said in an interview, “how so many people with so little comfort with other cultures are put in a position to have such an influence on them.”
Using parallel scenes, Honky presents a cross-section of attitudes. Peter (Francis Gerke), a white man who wrote the ad, tries so hard to prove his PC-ness he spins his wheels; Thomas (Gerald Joseph), an African-American who designed the multi-hued shoe, feels guilty for the murder, and maybe for being “not black enough.”
Both men seek answers (or escape, or revenge, or all of the above) from women: Peter does therapy with Emilia (Tanya Alexander), who turns out to be Thomas’s conflicted sister; Thomas absconds with Peter’s fiancé, Andie (Jacque Wilke), a “very white” white woman who spews evil trash unknowingly.
Honky has a hit-and-run, stay-ahead-of-the-audience quality. In the end, it goes giddily over the top. Dr. Driscoll (Jacob Bruce) invents a “race pill” guaranteed to cure the patient — though its side-effects include (hilarious) hallucinations.
Director Sam Woodhouse and the San Diego Rep let fly with a manic, often very funny staging. The cast, especially Deleon Dallas and Cortez L. Johnson as stereotype-debunkers, performs with unrelenting energy on Sean Fanning’s effective, video-rich set, widened in a new configuration at the Lyceum Space.
Kevin Anthenil’s sound design includes variations on the theme from Rocky, the jock anthem that, in this “pyramid of meaning,” drips with irony.
The sketchy play may not add up to a grand revelation, or — if you don’t count Emilia’s reminder that “words are not islands” — add up at all. But the Rep’s production entertains throughout, and the real revelations could come in the post-performance discussions.