Tonya, the cheeky daughter in “While I Yet Live,” has a problem with God (He’s “a wee bit passive aggressive, and vindictive”) and the Bible (“It’s the most violent book I’ve ever read.”) and with the way “old-timers” showed love (They weren’t ready for us “little black babies with brains and dreams and questions.”)
Tonya’s monologues, as performed with great comic verve by Sheria Irving, are among the highlights of “While I Yet Live,” a largely earnest, autobiographical play by “Kinky Boots” star Billy Porter, being given a first-rate production with a stellar cast at Primary Stages.
Porter has been upfront that the dysfunctional Pittsburgh family in his play is based on his own: “Reflecting on my own life experience as a gay, black, Christian man, and survivor of abuse,” he’s written, “I wanted to write a play that was about family, faith and the healing power of forgiveness.”
The play he has produced is a kitchen-sink drama that does not build steadily in dramatic tension but rather relies on a shaky, sometimes confusing narrative foundation piled high with declamations, sudden revelations, abrupt confessions and confrontations. The play takes place in the family household over three time periods – Thanksgiving 1994, which ends with Tonya’s brother Calvin, age 17, (the obvious stand-in for the playwright) leaving home; then seven years later, which ends with Calvin returning; then seven years after that, when he’s paying a visit. The middle scenes are mostly taken up by conversations between the surviving members of the family and the three who have died since the first act and who seem to have gained in wisdom since their earthly departures.
“While I Yet Live” benefits from lively direction by Sheryl Kaller, a meticulously lived-in set by James Noone and, above all, the remarkable performances by the cast of seven, portraying characters who are each of them burdened in some way.
I’ve mentioned Irving already as Tonya. S. Epatha Merkerson, best-known for her long-time role in “Law and Order,” is wonderful as Maxine, Tonya’s mother, who, at the play’s start, has both a physical disability and a narrow mind. As the play progresses, we see her physically deteriorate but progress in her attitudes, especially towards her gay son Calvin, portrayed by Larry Powell. The other members of the household each get their moments – the great Lillian White as Maxine’s mother Gertrude, for example, presides over a hilariously overlong Thanksgiving prayer. Even Kevyn Morrow in the thankless and underwritten role as the abusive stepfather, gets a moment of redemption, although it occurs after he’s dead, as a visiting spirit. Together, the ensemble suggests credibly a family that can, in warm, humorous, and inviting moments, transcend their troubles, as when Tonya introduces a new-fangled recipe for greens.
Tonya: I sautéed them.
Eva: Ooh, sautéed even. Fancy.
Gertrude: Excuse us for living.
Maxine: And what exactly is a sautee?
Tonya: First you put some olive oil in a saucepan over the fire and add some garlic and onion soften.
Eva: What’s a saucepan?
Gertrude: A fancy way of saying skillet.
Eva: So why ain’t she just say skillet?
Maxine: I hope you didn’t use my good blessed oil.
The banter between the women is itself cooked to perfection.
Anybody who follows Billy Porter’s Twitter feed knows that he is given to uplifting sayings. If “While I Yet Live” is too obviously an effort at exorcism and uplift, there are enough of those inviting moments to suggest the birth of a real playwright. I’m hoping he’ll find a place for the character Tonya in his next play.
While I Yet Live
Primary Stages at Duke Theater, 229 West 42nd Street
By Billy Porter
Directed by Sheryl Kaller.
Set design by James Noone, costume design by ESosa, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Leon Rothernberg
Cast: Elain Graham, Sheria Irving, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kevyn Morrow, Larry Powell, Sharon Washington, Lillias White
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
While I Yet Live is scheduled to run through October 31, 2014