Will we ever stop talking about race in America, in art, in books, songs, films, and plays? It’s a nice thought, though some might argue that the conversation has only just gotten interesting, now that the nation collectively has, in the parlance of one famous TV show, stopped being polite and started getting real.
The conversation rarely gets as real onstage as it does in Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s scathing new comedy P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle (★★★). Yet, in a display of showmanship that’s carried through in every fiber of Chisholm’s world-premiere production of his play at Studio Theatre, the playwright-director couches that realness within the amusing fiction of a reality show about two black rappers hired to teach a white, Canadian-born pop star how to up his swag game.
That would be a euphemistic way of saying that rappers Blacky Blackerson (Seth Hill) and Alexand Da Great (Gary L. Perkins III), of rap duo Petty Young Goons, are hired to teach teenage pop idol Dorian Belle (Simon Kiser) how to be more hip-hop, also a euphemistic way of saying act more, sing more, seem more “black.” In the process of figuring out what exactly that attitude and behavior adjustment might entail, and whether or not they want to be party to it, Black and Alex learn quite a bit themselves about being black versus performing blackness.
And Chisholm indulges myriad opportunities to teach the audience all we’d need to know to participate in the conversation, from the history of rap and hip-hop (two different things) and breaking and b-boying, to the joys of supposedly “white” pleasures like skiing and arugula. Said indulgence to teach (or preach, brother) can swing from pedantic to clever and back again in a moment’s notice. A portion of Chisholm’s audience already knows the “what black is” debate inside and out. Some even engaged that very same debate with his last play Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies, which saw a swell production (and then a revival of that production) last season at Mosaic.
P.Y.G. is a more loosely structured, hyperactive, pop culture hybrid, splicing and dicing reality show tropes with pop and rap performance, sketch show comedy, and old-school theatrical storytelling. The title very obviously references Shaw’s Pygmalion, as do elements of the plot, along with a well-placed hip-hop riff on “The Rain in Spain” from Pygmalion‘s famous musical adaptation, My Fair Lady.
The play also doesn’t disguise references to former teen idol Justin Bieber, who certainly wasn’t the first white pop star to swipe swag wholesale from artists of color along his evolution from “Baby” bubblegum to getting down with reggaeton in “Despacito.” Bieber’s not even the first famous Justin to code-switch his sound, since Timberlake shrewdly made the leap from squeaky-clean boy-bander to Mr. Sexyback with a mighty songwriting and production assist from black hip-hop heavyweights Timbaland and Pharrell Williams.
P.Y.G. works best as a savvy, contemporary examination of that long-standing practice in pop music, dating back to before Pat Boone, of white artists deliberately appropriating black music and culture for their benefit. Chisholm digs a little deeper to probe the question of who gets to grant permission for outsiders to enjoy and/or express a culture that doesn’t necessarily represent them.
Here, Dorian Belle argues persuasively that hip-hop music does represent him, that it speaks to him on an emotional level practically unmatched by any other style of music. But does his affinity for rap grant him the permission to drop the n-word at will, even if it comprises 75% of the lyrics of his favorite P.Y.G. song? Chisholm has sly fun using, and over-using, then not using the word. Undeniably, as it concerns this subject matter, the consistent usage, especially by rappers, is very much up for debate.
That word also can sound like music rolling off the tongue of Hill, who’s utterly convincing in the complex role of Blacky Blackerson, initially the more skeptical of the P.Y.G. duo about Dorian’s true intentions.
Perkins and Kiser also deliver assured dramatic performances, although Kiser doesn’t truly convey the outsized presence of uber-rich and famous phenom Dorian. Then, neither do composer and sound designer Gabriel Clausen’s tracks for Dorian really capture the sound of pop music right now. On the other hand, some of P.Y.G.’s songs sound Spotify-ready, just as the script sounds spot-on in some of its observations about the conversation we’re all currently having about race in America.
P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle runs through April 28, at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $55. Call 202-332-3300, or visit www.studiotheatre.org.