Review

The rhetoric of race gets a swift kick in Rogue Machine's 'Honky'

Never underestimate the importance of having the right shoes. That's a lesson the snappy, irreverent “Honky” at the MET Theatre takes very much to heart with its opening hip-hop jingle for a trendy brand of sneakers: “When ghetto's in your sole / And it's kinda like 'The Wire' on HBO / Reach for the Sky!”

An equal opportunity satire for our ad-driven society, this sharply written, smartly performed Rogue Machine production deftly skewers PC platitudes and self-delusions on both sides of the black-white racial divide.

Playwright Greg Kalleres’ insightful takedown is set amid exploitative consumerism, as an inner-city shooting over a coveted pair of Sky ballers sparks the brand’s surging “street cred” among suburban white mall rats. The shoes’ designer, Thomas (Burl Moseley), is horrified when the newly hired CEO (Bruce Nozick) announces plans to leverage the tragedy for market expansion into a new demographic, thereby co-opting and diluting the company’s focus on urban (read: black) youth apparel.

Where a lesser play might predictably settle for black-and-white arguments, “Honky” opts for richer psychological territory: The play’s five principal characters grapple with internal conflicts about their own racial identity. Thomas’ declared solidarity with “his people” turns out to be rooted in an affluent upbringing that’s left him desperate to reclaim his blackness. Conversely, his sister (Inger Tudor), a therapist, denies any racial differences in viewing her (exclusively white) clients as just “people with problems.”

One of these people turns out to be the copywriter (James Liebman) who penned the ad tagline attributed to the shooter. His fiancée (Tasha Ames) attempts a hilarious balancing act between honesty and PC euphemisms, while the CEO’s cloddish insensitivity overcompensates for his own white guilt. Matthew Hancock, Christian Henley and Ron Bottitta round out the excellent ensemble in a variety of vividly sketched supporting roles (including medication-induced cameos by Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass).

Linking these loopy conflicted characters entails some heightened narrative contrivances that situate the show in absurdist farce, but Gregg T. Daniel’s staging keeps it laugh-out-loud funny even when airing uncomfortable truths. Its most universal dictum, perhaps, is one of racial truth in advertising: “No one owns their own pain anymore — the second you use it for currency, it’s lost forever.”

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“Honky,” MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 12. $34.99. (Pay-what-you-can on May 13.) (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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