By Bill Hirschman
Michael Jackson never appears as a character in the incisive new play Defacing Michael Jackson, although his influence is infused into the journey you see on the Miami New Drama stage. But Aurin Squire’s insightful tale isn’t about the entertainer at all.
In memoir fashion, his adult narrator Obadiah recreates a portrait of black teenagers growing up in the tumultuous neighborhood of Opa-Locka in 1984 amid race riots and the beginning of the transformation from ghetto to multi-ethnic suburbia.
Jackson’s presence is as an unprecedented idol and role model, providing these low-income teens coming from troubled families a hope for a radically different future. It’s an imperiled outlook as the world around them is simultaneously disintegrating and regenerating – echoing Jackson’s publicized life.
Shaun Patrick Tubbs’ fluid direction laudably dissects then depicts the multiple streams weaving through the play. The quartet of 20-something performers is supremely credible inhabiting teens as they evolve through adolescence. Most of the time, the evening vibrates.
But the headline here is Squire’s powerful script. Yes, Squire wrote the book for Miami New Drama’s Louis Armstrong bio-musical A Wonderful World, co-wrote Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboys and one of the short plays for Seven Deadly Sins. He also has written for television’s This Is Us, The Good Fight and Evil.
None of that prepped any of the expectations that he flew past with this theatrical fusion of time and space, sex and adolescence, tragedy and humor, racial animus and social changes that we look back on, not with regret or anger, but with the kind of sobered knowledge that time grants.
Squire uses the carefully observed specifics of Opa-Locka as a stand-in for any urban neighborhood that has been transformed into something unrecognizable from before.
But for Miami-Dade residents, the script is permeated with specifics of social structures, interrelationships and racial unrest that can only come from someone who lived here and during that time. It echoes one of Miami New Drama’s overall goals to capture and portray the unique cultural and communal aspects of the region.
To wit, Obadiah sets the scene: “A flat city of gasoline stations, abandoned parking lots, and a drainage canal where every year a few drunks drown in the weed-choked black water that carry waste from Miami and into the Everglades. A place where something is always getting started and nothing is ever finished. This is the edge. Of black and white. Of innocence and corruption. Of naive optimism and jaded cynicism. Of the fading cold war and the approaching hot peace.”
The story centers on four members of the The Opa-Locka City and Miami-Dade County, Florida Michael Jackson Fan Club: Yvonne “Frenchy” Carter, a dark-skinned perpetually jazzed up fangirl; Red, a mentally-challenged black kid whose hobby is theft and who wears Jackson-inspired red clothing; Yellow, his twin brother who has a stutter; and our “Obi,” a light-skinned handsome and innately intelligent central protagonist whose parents have a VCR on which he endlessly plays the Thriller video for his friends. Their skin tones and the accompanying stereotypes will matter as the story ensues.
They are a kind of substitute family – close yet quarrelsome – because their own parents are missing, drunks, cold or physically abusive.
Frenchy proposes to the city council that local youths create a huge downtown mural depicting their hero, built from fans’ considerable collection of memorabilia “We would all get a chance to have our voices heard,” she says, hoping the effort will prompt Michael to visit.
Into the mix appears Wes, a white teen who the others call Jack (derisively short for cracker-jack). Wes’ family had to move out from wherever they lived and into this ghetto because of a scandal whose nature we won’t learn until later.
Jack is a serious fish out of water. Obi now recalls that the initial taunting and ribbing of Jack and other white arrivals: “What we did to him was unfair, manipulative and a little cruel. But we knew it didn’t matter if we made them squirm, because this was our way – at least for a few years~ of evening the score a little. Besides, they would have the rest of their lives to take their revenge out on us. And they would.”
But Jack’s overwhelming love of Michael Jackson convinces Obi to persuade the reluctant group to let him in the club. Then, as the mural idea grows, Wes’ father agrees to pay for an amped-up vision for the project which will become a two-story tall and bizarre three-dimensional face looking like The Wizard in the Michael Jackson film version of The Wiz.
Just as the social dynamic is changing in the community, the white teen begins to accumulate influence and even power, leading to destructive tension in the club. At the same time, the teens are maturing in a world including riots occurring around them and explorations of their own sexuality.
Eventually, the complex facets collide. There is violence, bonding, fury, affection, dissolution, racial epithets uttered from one Black at another.
Under it all is an examination of youngsters’ need for heroes through pop culture. These youngsters who all feel like outsiders for various reasons perceive a kinship with Jackson, an outsider who has achieved the adoration of millions of people.
But besides the street repartee, Squire can let loose with monologues that read on the page like normal speech but delivered by the actors and director sound like poetic prose.
OBADIAH: 1984 disintegrated in little pieces before my eyes. Like bits of sky or sun burnt skin. Bit by bit it all fell down. The neighborhood changed. Latinos and Whites moved in, raising the property values, which meant black families were forced to move out. Fast food, grocery stores and delis arrived. And so did crack and AIDS. Friends and neighbors we had known for years started dying. Their mouths would shrivel up and their eyes would bulge out of their heads and a desperate panting would come across their face as if they were saying ‘save me.’ But we could only watch.”
There are also exchanges that could only be written by insiders who had lived them. Such as:
FRENCHY: Sho glad massa is so nice to us. I’se go tell the others.
JACK: Why did she talk like that?
OBADIAH: It’s just ‘fake slave’ speech. All blacks are required to learn how to do it.
JACK: Oh, do you learn it to honor your people?
OBADIAH: No, it’s usually to make fun of your people.
Or later Red teases with a racism-within-race taunt that may surprise most Anglos in the audience: “What’s the matter Frenchy? You sweating like a Haitian now. And if you keep it up, your hair gonna nap up like an African.”
Granted, a good dramaturg could sweat out ten minutes from this 100-minute tale, but this is only the second time the work has been on a stage.
The fine cast is graced with Xavier Edward King, a Chicago-based actor, as Obi, an engaging personality we bond with instantly. As an adult, King’s Obadiah exudes the calm of someone who has come to terms with the past. As a young teen, his Obi is more assured than his friends, but increasingly uncomfortable with the crumbling around him, not to mention his socially-demeaned sexual stirrings. Notably, his flexible body language of a carefree adolescent becomes increasing less nimble.
Joshua Hernandez, a New York actor originally from Miami, perfectly inhabits the white arrival who wants to be accepted and awkwardly tries to fit in a world he knows nothing about, seemingly rejecting the racism in his own family. But he captures Jack’s personality changes as the dynamics of this world change.
Sydney Presendieu — a New World grad in only her second professional role after appearing Zoetic Stage’s Mlima — is outstanding portraying the evolving of Frenchy from aggressive, proud and confident to someone angrily watching the world she knew collapse under her.
Chicagoan Dylan Rogers successfully shuttles between playing clearly differentiated Red, Yellow and even a city commissioner at the unveiling of the mural.
All of them excel at communicating the normal awkward stumbling of any young teen, exacerbated here by the social ills around them.
Randolph Ward provides the kids with all the classic Jackson moves to imitate; King is especially agile at seamlessly almost unconsciously incorporating Jackson’s choreography into his daily life. But Tubbs wisely has the kids cut back on the dance moves as the story darkens.
Frank J. Oliva’s environment is blank soulless concrete slabs looking like the granite stones common in set designs of the 1930s for Greek tragedies. Later, his impressionistic vision of the three-dimensional mural is not what you expect. With no other set pieces, the crucial changes in decades and locations falls to lighting designer Nicole E. Lang with colored shafts of light and a lot of spotlight work. The changing mood is aided by an undercurrent of music by Quentin Chiappetta.
Defacing Michael Jackson from Miami New Drama plays through April 2; at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; Running time 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission; performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday; tickets $46.50 to $76.50. Call 305-674-1040 or visit miaminewdrama.org.