Jonald Jude Reyes is a Writer, Performer & Director in Chicago, IL. His works have been performed in various theaters city-wide, including Stage 773, The Annoyance, and The Second City. In 2016, he was named Best of Stage Director by the Chicago Reader and was selected to the DirectorsLabChicago program. Learn more at http://www.jonaldjude.com.
Pictured: Chris Taylor. Photo by Emily Schwartz.
By Jonald Jude Reyes
“The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” -James Baldwin
Our narrator enters the stage and begins Aurin Squire’s play by asking us “can you take yourself back?” And through lists of cultural memories, we’re brought back to a time when society was less politically correct, when children were more innocent, and when Michael Jackson became a household name. This is 1984.
We land in a Michael Jackson Fanclub meeting where Frenchy (JoJo Pender) brings the members to order. She, Red (Eldridge Shannon III), and Obie (Christopher Taylor) set the tone of a life growing up in Opa-Locka, Florida, and introduce their group project: a giant mural effigy to Michael Jackson. The mural becomes the centerpiece of Squire’s play, as personal plotlines and themes grow out of the progress of creating it. In the next scene, Yellow, Red’s twin brother (also played by Shannon) informs Frenchy that a white family is moving into the community, which is primarily populated by Black families. Enter suspenseful music!
Or in this case, enter Michael Jackson’s Thriller and insert a great choreographed dance sequence mirroring the classic music video. Under Director Alexis J. Roston, DEFACING MICHAEL JACKSON has the ability to reminisce, by splashing in not only Jackson hits, but a plethora of other eighties music. The characters bounce back and forth between addressing the audience and dropping back into scenes, which helps to keep this coming of age tale intimate within the walls of Stage 773.
When the new family moves in, Jack (Sam Martin) is the new kid on the block and wants to fit in, but his complexion already has him hamstrung by preconceived notions. Obie, being the nice kid that he is, tries to convince his friends that he’s alright. He and Jack become very good friends, and with these two young men in their pubescent years, Squire introduces an element of sexual exploration.
Squire’s play is quite robust with a lot of themes bleeding from the story. There’s this ongoing underlining of what it is to be a Black male in society during that period, showing how much has and hasn’t changed through the years. And then there are the elements of white privilege, economic advantage, and gentrification. These are just a handful of the themes that Squire plays with, and all the while we’re making connections to Michael Jackson. So much exploration tempers some of the more serious moments, and it can be a lot to digest for the audience.
This minimal cast is very talented and carries the weight of the changing times. Taylor has great charisma and displays an emotional balance between teenage angst and a natural leader. With that, his character is able to influence how others should treat Jack. Martin delivers a natural quality and when situations arise, his commitment helps to heighten the intensity. Pender, as the only female, does solid work delivering the empowering words of young Black women. She has a raw energy which compliments her dueling scenes with Yellow or Red. Shannon has the biggest job — playing three different characters throughout the play. His switches from Yellow, who stutters, to Red, an up-and-coming gang member, are impressive. As the stakes of building this mural increase, each character grows and these actors hold their ground by staying true to their wants.
DEFACING MICHAEL JACKSON is a lot to swallow, but with the mix of solid acting, reminiscent cultural references, and its coming-of-age throughline, it’s an admirable play for Flying Elephant Productions to end their season with.
DEFACING MICHAEL JACKSON runs through August 12th. For more information visit flyingelephantproductions.com.