Content note: recountings of pedophilia, recounting of a suicide
Viewers were warned that the play contained ghosts, so anything that seemed confusing, might be a ghost.
This story is inspired by Billy Porter's life, but the characters all have different names. I confess I personally do not know enough of Billy Porter's backstory to identify specific differences, but I expect that this is intended to give a feeling, rather than being a strictly factual play.
The action begins on a pivotal Thanksgiving Day where we see that the family - like many - has a number of tensions and concerns. Eva is sick, Maxine is disabled and mistreated by her aunt Dolores, and has realized that her husband Vernon is maybe not keeping her family intact like she hoped. Dolores is upset at how the cooking is progressing, Gertrude is trying to get her to be nice, and Calvin is trying to figure out if he can keep on living in this house. Just about everyone has a secret and/or a concern.
The church - particularly in part one - is clearly a deep part of their life and used as both an excuse and hammer for certain behavior, including considering illness a punishment, and flamboyance and possible homeosexuality a concern.
As the time progresses forward, Tonya ages and gets to questioning the version of Christianity she has been presented. The ghosts allow for echoes of the generational ideas that were passed on.
While in theory a play about Billy Porter's life might star the character based on him, but Tonya is the focal point, leading the audience through revelations, even though in the earliest rendering she is often left out of the conversations and sent to other rooms. (I read one review that felt that Maxine is the focal point, which I think is something one could also argue.)
The play looks at complex family dynamics, concerns about care, and familial roles. It takes place over three distinct days, separated by years, and is essentially slices of life, but it is also a play concerned with healing so while some of the pieces of business are left open ended, the main characters end the play in better relationship with one another than they started.
The dialogue in this play is fantastic. These characters are quickly rendered. There is a reliance on cliched sayings, but for the most part it seemed normal.
The cast made me believe they were related and loved and at times were thoroughly over each other. There's one moment where Maxine demands the phone to talk to Calvin's - ahem - roommate and the look of embarrassed anxiety on Calvin's face was so real I had to look away.
It is a play about the systems that didn't serve everyone equally, and reconciling the generational shifts, and of course recognizing that sometimes even your best survival leaves others in the lurch.
It will shock, I expect no one, to learn that S. Epatha Merkeson is a powerful actress, even through a zoom screen. It wasn't hard at all to believe that
there was a Tony winner (Lillias White) in the cast and apparently Larry Powell performed in DC in the before times, so I will need to keep an eye out for that someday.
The recording will be on demand through February 10th.