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Review: In ‘The Gaze ... No Homo,’ a Black and queer actor navigates the white theater world

Sharon Lawrence and Galen J. Williams in "The Gaze ... No Homo."
Sharon Lawrence and Galen J. Williams in the digital stage production of Larry Powell’s “The Gaze ... No Homo.”
(Tell Me a Story Productions )

Larry Powell’s “The Gaze … No Homo” is difficult to classify. It started as a play, morphed into a web series and now is being presented by Center Theatre Group in a repackaged form for the digital stage.

The question isn’t simply academic. Understanding what you’re watching is important because a play isn’t streaming television or cinema, and even a hybrid has to make artistic choices that are medium specific.

“No Homo” centers on a 28-year-old Black queer actor named Jerome Price (Galen J. Williams), an ambitious talent fresh from grad school, who’s trying to navigate his way through the white power structure of the American theater. Jerome has been cast in a play at the exalted Evergreen Festival, located in a “WASPY, woodsy, white” community that, despite the elaborate welcome wagon, doesn’t feel especially inviting to someone who has been tagged “from the ’hood.”

While jiggling the key he’s been given to the front door of a theater donor’s house, Jerome has a run-in with a suspicious police officer. For “No Homo,” this incident is mere background to another story of racial inequity, the one taking place within the smugly progressive confines of a prestigious theater.

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The empress of the Evergreen Festival is Miranda Cryer, who, as fearlessly played by Sharon Lawrence, is a Karen on steroids. The interim artistic director who’s staging the play Jerome has been cast in, Miranda is completely fluent in diversity-speak and utterly clueless about how her conduct undermines her lip service.

Mixing satire with dramatic comedy, Powell, a rising multihyphenate theater artist born and raised in South Los Angeles, invites us to experience what it’s like for someone doubly marginalized to enter this cultural space, where opportunities are meted out to outsiders as though they were royal favors. Powell’s depiction of backstage micro- and macro-aggressions is consistent with the skewering portrait found in Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version” — further proof that what Jerome encounters is not specific to him but systemic.

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In the web series version of “No Homo,” the drama was broken up into manageable installments. This digital-stage amalgam is too episodic to sustain momentum for a 2½--hour chronicle.

The issue isn’t chiefly about length (though there are limits to how long anyone wants to stare at a computer screen) but about the arc of discovery. Powell circles his subject from a variety of angles, but Jerome is so clearly in the right that the piece often feels more like a demonstration than a drama.

Perhaps the least interesting thing about “No Homo” is the escalating conflict between Jerome, who wishes to be faithful to his experience as a Black queer man when bringing to life a Black queer character in a play by a Black queer playwright, and Miranda, who is anxious not to offend the sensibilities of her white audience.

The last thing this pushy director wants is to spoil her plans for this potential woke blockbuster by Shaun Korey (Devere Rogers). To her careerist mind, Shaun is one of the two “Black queer playwrights of our time.” Miranda, thrilled that she’s latched on to one of them, insists Jerome stifle his rage in his performance even as she provokes it further in rehearsal.

Galen J. Williams in Larry Powell's "The Gaze ... No Homo"
Galen J. Williams in Larry Powell’s “The Gaze ... No Homo.”
(Tell Me a Story Productions )

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Memorable drama derives from moral complexity, from the collision of contradictory positions, each with its own legitimate claim. Likewise, comedy and satire are at their sharpest when theatrical opponents are well matched. The battle between Miranda and Jerome is noticeably lopsided. She’s powerful, abusive and obtuse; he’s vulnerable, politically conscious and unable to go along to get along. You’d have to be an imbecile not to know where your ethical sympathies should lie.

In terms of plot interest, there’s the question of whether Jerome will swallow his integrity to placate Miranda or call her out on her oppressive behavior and jeopardize his big break. But the stakes aren’t all that high: These fraught rehearsals are for a stage reading, which (because of the pandemic) is going to happen via Zoom.

Pardon this public service announcement, but no one should sell their soul to be in a digital play reading. Actors, I know it’s been a horrible year, but the vaccines are already here. Have faith!

“No Homo” may be short on discovery, but it’s not lacking in vision. This mixed-media production captures in fleeting, unconscious images the way racial hostility is internalized.

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Symbols of control, restraint, menace and punishment circulate with surreal freedom. The screen flashes with pictures of stop lights, scrap heaps and snarling dogs. The setting may be a decorous Zoom rehearsal, but internally it’s a war zone.

The discrepancy between the performance of social identity and the fluctuating reality of feeling and thought goes beyond Miranda’s flailing hypocrisy. Early on, as Jerome is just getting to know the theater’s power players during a digital meet-and-greet, he keeps having to check himself in the group chat and revise his responses to conform to an etiquette that leaves little room for his authentic self or even Black emojis.

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This work features a suite of directors. Among them is Powell, who in addition to writing and adapting also curated the production as a sort of digital showrunner. Given the number of artists involved, it’s impressive that the final product (while taxing in this format) feels as stylistically coherent as it does.

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The veterans of the cast are the standouts. Beyond the bold attack of Lawrence’s Miranda, Yvette Cason breathes prickly life into stage manager Sherry Grosse, who takes a stern, grandmotherly interest in Jerome. And as Buddy DuPois, the old pro of Miranda’s company, TC Carson, plays the male diva to imperious, weed-puffing perfection.

Jerome’s fraught interactions with his fellow company members of color — closeted, straight, trans or as radically queer as himself — bring nuance to the issue of Black accommodation and appeasement of white authority. Although Williams’ sensitive performance reflects a soul wrestling for answers, Jerome is clearly the future and everyone else is the past. He’s been in the right from the moment he enters this leafy bastion of white privilege. It just takes him a while to find the inner strength to realize it.

“No Homo” is the first in Powell’s “The Gaze” cycle of plays examining the possibilities of Black queer work in white cultural environments. It’s an exciting project that would benefit from more careful consideration of the relationship between dramatic form and medium. Also, Powell’s protagonist could use a worthier foil. Drama, after all, thrives on uncertainty, ambiguity and surprise.

‘The Gaze … No Homo’

Where: Center Theatre Group’s Digital Stage

When: On demand through March 25

Tickets: $20

Info: www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 2 hour, 30 minutes

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