By: Isa Goldberg
Billy Porter, the playwright, is not shy about using clichés. They run through his semiautobiographical play, "While I Yet Live", like the glittering red boots he wears in "Kinky Boots", the wham bang role that won him his Tony. Looking back at his youth brings up the stuff of many a celebrity autobiography – child abuse, incest, ghetto life, homophobia – and all of the obvious dialogue that goes with it, like his mother’s admonition, "The Lord is always there, is the answer", or Calvin’s impatient grimaces, "I can’t fix what I am."
Calvin (Larry Powell), the play’s central character and Porter’s alter ego, is gay in a family of struggling, god loving and equally pastor-fearing Christians. His stepfather (Kevyn Morrow), the pedophile, his adoring grandma, played by none other than the fabulous Lillias White, a hostile great aunt (Elain Graham), and cancer ridden Eva (Sharon Washington) are all part of his extended family. Director Sheryl Kaller ("Mothers and Sons") brings out the best in her actors. None, however, are quite as charming as Calvin’s sister, (Sheria Irving) or as transformative as his mom, S. Epatha Merkerson, "the church cripple", who comes through with amazing grace. Marginalized and emotionally scarred, she finds the path to acceptance. It’s the play’s quintessential heroic journey.
Porter, clearly, has a need for heroes. Perhaps he discovered them early on in the Greek tragedies that he learned about at school. He casts the role of the sister, an adorable child and later a brilliant youth, as the narrator/prophet of his tale, and all those now deceased characters looking back from death on the struggles of those who are living, are at least part Greek chorus. Much as they also bring to mind, Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town", it’s Wilder’s "A Long Christmas Dinner" which is evoked here in the Thanksgiving meal that frames most of the first act, covering a period of seven years, while characters leave home, carry on, or finally give up the ghost.
The production throughout reveals Calvin’s fascination with theatrical underpinnings, such as Kevin Adams’ lighting, exposing the cloth and wooden flats from which the walls of the set (by James Noone) are built. And the set itself, the inside of the family home, upstairs and down, sliced through like an orange. Who could miss that slice of life! Certainly not Porter, who, while striving to go beyond the boundaries of mere realism or magical realism even, often winds up espousing a tale that would fulfill many a soap opera plot.
On the bright side, life turns out very well for Calvin, as well as his Fulbright awarded sister, and his finally accepting mom. On the other side, there are too many self-help modules to be culled from this drama to name them all here, but "let it go" is the main one, the only real cure, and the one we can take away with some innocent pleasure.
"While I Yet Live", presented by Primary Stages at The Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, is a limited run through October 31st. For tickets go to http://dukeon42.org/ or call 646-223-3010.
Photo: James Leynse