Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Give me my flowers/While I yet live/So that I, I, can see the beauty/That they bring.” – James Cleveland
In 1994, just before the Thanksgiving turkey is carved and served, Calvin (Larry Powell) packs his things, says good-bye to Eva (Sharon Washington) and his sister Tonya (Sheria Irving) and leaves his Pittsburgh house and home. Sexually abused by his stepfather Vernon (Kevyn Morrow) and emotionally abused by a Pentecostal faith that brands his sexual status as “not normal,” Calvin “needs space to grow, to learn how to love myself, in spite of myself.”
Seven years and three Broadway shows later, Calvin returns home to a house inhabited by jealousy, remorse, and a ghostly cacophony urging Calvin to reunite with his family, practice his childhood faith, and open himself to the healing power of forgiveness. Unfortunately, it appears Calvin has returned to arrange for his mother to enter an assisted living facility. Where Calvin has been and what he did to learn how to love himself remains a mystery to his prodigal family – and to the audience. And that mystery is the problem with Billy Porter’s autobiographical new play “While I Yet Live” currently running at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street.
What is known in Mr. Porter’s play is that the cultural divide between generations is not only palpable but often destructive. That divide includes vastly differing ways to understand faith, to understand commitment to family, and to embrace the matrix of acceptance that promotes redemptive healing. Calvin’s mother Maxine (played with scintillating brilliance by S. Epatha Merkerson), who suffers from a cerebral palsy like disease, draws upon a deep faith to cope with her illness; unfortunately, that same faith labels most of the human condition “a shame before God.” Calvin’s grandmother Gertrude (played with just the right playfulness by Lillias White) attempts to close the generational gap but is unable to successfully break through the barricades of resentment and sorrow erected by Gertrude and her sister Delores (Elaine Graham).
Mr. Porter has shared that he wrote “While I Yet Live” as “a love letter to his mother, his sister, and the woman who raised him.” And although there is much in his first script that celebrates these women in his characters, there is too much left unsaid and unresolved. The playwright’s decision to break the fourth wall is unfortunate. Every time Tonya breaks that fragile wall and addresses the audience, her monologues do more than provide exposition: these appeals to the audience’s memories build walls between those memories and the stories seeking resolution on the stage. Further weakening the script is the decision to depend on ghosts to resolve conflicts and a player piano to provide setting. Magical realism is a difficult theatrical convention and it does nothing to advance the plot in Mr. Porter’s play.
Under Sheryl Kaller’s somewhat tentative direction, the ensemble cast often rises above the script to deliver performances filled with authenticity and believability; however, it is difficult to connect to these strong women. Although Calvin’s mother Maxine embraces psychotherapy to better understand herself and her son, the effort seems far too little and far too late. And Tonya’s resentment and bitterness and her sudden willingness to pray with Maxine and Calvin seem out of character and lacking believability.
Mr. Powell is an engaging Calvin but he is not given the opportunity to “come of age” on stage. The audience aches for more of Mr. Powell’s craft in sharing Calvin’s important and redemptive journey to self-acceptance. As it stands, “While I Yet Live” is an interesting glimpse into the heart and guts of a dysfunctional family. There is nothing new in Mr. Porter’s first play. What is important is that there will be a second, and a third. And for that we give thanks.