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THEATER REVIEW: “Honky” at San Diego Rep

I have to be careful in describing “Honky.” If I tell you it’s a play about words – or a play about race – you may either run the other direction, or expect something it isn’t.

So let me tell you this: Greg Kalleres’ “Honky” is a peculiar compilation of many of our notions, fears, prejudices, guilt – and words – about race stuffed into a very funny and profane play about basketball shoes. That’s right, shoes. It plays through Dec. 7 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, under Sam Woodhouse’s assured direction.

When a young African-American is shot for a pair of basketball shoes, sales of the shoes to white teens skyrocket. This results in a business decision by Davis Tallison (James Newcomb) to begin marketing Sky Max 16 shoes to white kids.

The problem? Thomas Hodge (Gerard Joseph), the black designer of Sky Max, wants to keep the shoes for “my people.”

You see the difficulty already, right? Now toss in the white guilt of Peter (Francis Gercke), who created the ad he considers responsible for the death, and his surprise that his new therapist is a black woman named Emilia (Tanya Alexander). Oh, and Peter’s fiancée Andie (Jacque Wilke), who censors nothing that she says and just wants to feel something.

Add two black kids you might see on a subway or basketball court, a foul-mouthed Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln as a lush, a doctor who offers an anti-racist pill and every word pertaining to race that you hesitate to say, and you have a strange but very amusing soup that may make you squirm at times, but is guaranteed to make you laugh often.

One reason this script sounds so real despite the kookiness of the plot is that Kalleres knows his business. He has both won festival honors for his one-act plays and worked as a copywriter for Nike and Brand Jordan, and created ESPN’s Monday night football campaign: “Is it Monday Yet?”

The other reason is the superb cast, which mines the script for all its offensive and confusing possibilities and gives us characters who sound all too familiar.

Dallas and Johnson are perfectly cast as the hip-hop generation kids, Dallas doing double duty as a Frederick Douglass nobody ever saw.

Newcomb and Joseph circle each other like panthers, salesman and artist, trying to communicate but finding it difficult and offensive on so many levels.

Wilke and Gercke are terrific as the ill-matched fiancés, one unwilling to self-censor, the other suffering such white guilt that he can barely get a coherent sentence out.

Alexander’s Emilia and Bruce’s Dr. Driscoll make an interesting pair as well: the medical profession represented by Emilia’s concern and stressed tolerance and the doctor’s smooth if questionable answer for racism.

Sean Fanning’s set design features mostly roll-on pieces for the many locations. Daniel Carino’s projections give the jittery, gritty feel of the city.

“Honky” is not for the profanity-avoidant. But Kalleres gives us something to think about.

The details

“Honky” plays through Dec. 7 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown San Diego, California.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.