Chris Taylor in ‘Defacing Michael Jackson.’ (Photo: Emily Schwartz)
By Becky Sarwate
Cultural moments that capture the zeitgeist come and go, but a certain fascination with the 1980s remains evergreen. It’s possible in 2018 to draw a straight line from the heyday of Reaganism to the dysfunction of modern politics and the failure of top-down socioeconomic policy to create equal American opportunity. The market-driven madness that exploded during the tenure of POTUS 40 has eroded the social safety net and turned the working poor against one another through divisiveness. But what does Michael Jackson have to do with any of this? Stay with me.
At the same time as fundamental threats to the American Dream began to grow in the “Shining City upon a Hill,” pop culture never felt so fun and free. So full of equalizing promise. It is into this breach that playwright Aurin Squire’s racially-charged comedy, Defacing Michael Jackson, attempts to step — with limited success.
The play is an odd choice for Flying Elephant Productions’ inaugural theater season conclusion. The theatre describes itself as “a company dedicated to presenting the musicals and plays of marginalized communities and then helping them market for future productions.”
What then to say about a choice of source material that features an overly casual storyline about pedophilia? Are abused children not the most marginalized voices of all? Child sexual abuse featured prominently in the prurient headlines generated by the King of Pop in his later years. It’s impossible that anyone who followed Jackson’s career has forgotten the allegations.
Defacing Michael Jackson desires to keep the focus on the historical challenges of racial experience and disharmony, and Michael Jackson is undoubtedly an important cipher for that discussion. By attempting to normalize pedophilia in the play’s script and staging, however, a disturbing piece of Jackson’s legacy becomes inconsequential. It was so jarring to see such a nonchalant exploration of child abuse within the context of Squire’s play that this reviewer found it hard to think of anything else. The work’s intermittent and erratic approach becomes an unfortunate and morally aimless distraction.
Director Alexis J. Roston steers a talented cast of relative theater newcomers but exhibits tone deafness in production press materials that echo the script’s clumsy dismissal of sex crimes. Ms. Roston states in a press release in regards to promoting constructive racial discussion that the play “can open closed doors of dialogue and uncover areas of confusion that have been left unchartered.” But at the same time, the work bizarrely fails to interrogate the doors opened on the issue of child sexual abuse, an inconsistency that feels dramaturgically hollow.
Defacing Michael Jackson introduces an anomalous white character that moves into a historically black neighborhood and upends the status quo. But after the curtain fell, I revisited Ms. Roston’s statement and felt like screaming, “A white man has been sexually abusing his middle school-aged son for years! The teen then turns the predatory behavior on his black friend, and this is emphatically never discussed!”
Mr. Squire didn’t have to write this plotline into the script. But he did, and it’s disingenuous to view the inclusion as some kind of colonialist, white power metaphor when Michael Jackson’s latter career was punctuated by serious allegations of sexual misconduct with young boys. From that perspective, the lack of engagement or closure and the decision to leverage molestation as an introduction to potential closeted homosexuality is social justice malpractice. In a work that offers itself as a tough but necessary conversation starter, we must demand more.
The script’s glaring shortcomings are no fault of the energetic and promising young cast members, including Samuel Martin as Jack and Chris Taylor as neighborhood pre-teen consigliere, Obadiah. The most powerful work comes from Eldridge Shannon III, who plays the triple role of twins Red and Yellow, as well as the municipal Commish. Audience members will not require a change in hat colors, or the donning of rimmed glasses, to comprehend Shannon’s character transitions. JoJo Pender is also precociously complicated as neighborhood tough girl and MJ superfan, Frenchy.
There’s nothing these gifted performers can do, however, to save a fundamentally flawed script that fails to pass its own honesty test.
Defacing Michael Jackson
1225 West Belmont, Chicago
Through August 12
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.