Let it never be said that Billy Porter will run out of plot-lines or characters to support them. As a matter of fact, in this Primary Stages production of While I Yet Live, now at The Duke on 42nd Street, there are as many plot-lines as there are characters.
While it may appear that this is the story of Maxine (S. Epatha Merkerson in a stunning performance) who is a woman up against overwhelming circumstances, it is really the story of Maxine’s son Calvin (Larry Powell) who is based on Billy Porter.
It is the mid 1990’s and Calvin is 17 years old. He is a Christian – Maxine being a devout member of a Pentecostal church – and coming out of the closet smacks into the teachings of his church. It also runs up against Maxine herself who cannot come to terms with this. Somehow, she is certain it is her fault. It is another situation, like her own physical disability, which is unspecified but progressive, that will call out cause for blame.
There are secrets and shames everywhere in this story. Maxine’s best friend Eva (Sharon Washington), now living with the family has the double whammy of cancer and a secret she is keeping from everyone. Illness is either a punishment or a gift from God, depending on how a person looks at it.
Vernon (Kevyn Morrow), Maxine’s husband, is a bitter man filled with shame. Maxine’s mother Gertrude (Lillias White) and her sister Aunt Delores (Elain Graham) have secrets as well. The only one who doesn’t seem to have secrets is our guide extraordinaire Tonya (Sheria Irving) who not only walks us through the family saga, but takes us through a blunt examination of the Bible’s contradictions, horrors and surprises (reminiscent of Julia Sweeney). In one of the play’s best moments we watch Tanya grow from 12 to 19 with the simplest of actions.
Calvin’s presence, or lack thereof, is the wind that shifts the family direction. Tanya is the one who assumes the caretaker role, even as a child. Although she talks a good game of getting out, she is the one who shoulders the home front responsibilities as the family grows smaller. Maxine is the center of the storm, facing her illness as well as her son’s coming out and what it means to her position in the community.
Mr. Porter’s message is clear here: life is about letting go of the disappointments and injuries that dog our path. It is about letting go of the anger that we carry around like coupons. Some of us are ready to redeem them at a moment’s notice. Others of us are reluctant to play our hand at all. What would happen if we let go and forgave? What would replace the anger?
The mantra here is forgiveness and letting go. These key words are repeated over and over and over again, as if Mr. Porter is whispering directly into your ear. We see the moments of despair and righteous confusion. Calvin especially takes his religion to task. If God creates everything, and Calvin is gay, how can he not be a creation of God’s own design? Porter’s writing cuts a broad swath that pulls up question after question.
Everyone is crashing up against everyone like tidal waves trapped in a harbor. Mr. Porter holds nothing back in delivering the many concurrent layers that exist for both the living and the dead. This is a noisy, sprawling family reaching out, going forward, facing their obstacles and meeting their challenges (even taking in friend EVa – the excellent Sharon Washington – when she is at her lowest time) in all the daily moments. He also moves us through the timeline of the 14 years with a graceful touch.
In a moving climax Maxine, Calvin and Tanya duke it out. We have traveled 14 years since the opening scene, and Maxine has finally come to terms with the body she has and the life she was given. She is the one to lead her children into their future as individuals and as a family. She finally understands forgiveness and letting go because she has had to do it in order to survive.
Merkerson is nothing short of brilliant here. She shows us the transformation after the fact so beautifully that we almost believe that we have seen the transforming moment, when in fact we have not.
Mr. Porter’s text, while well intentioned, is expository and lacks the specificity of his performances. In addition there is no one character’s path that leads the way. Maxine’s moment of transformation happens off stage, which is unfortunate as it is the lynch pin of the story. We hear about it, when seeing it would have done us better. There are also superb moments that reveal Porter’s abilities of observation but they are connected by long periods of dialogue that causes the movement of the story to bog down. James Noone’s set is a tight fit that Sheryl Kaller’s direction is not able to overcome.
It is the actors who come through here. Each one has created a character fully formed who inhabits the stage and the story. (An odd casting note is the choice of Ms. White as Gertrude, Maxine’s mother, when she and Merkerson are almost the same age.) What the ensemble gives Mr. Porter is a bouquet. Because of their work, Porter’s tale stands up on it’s legs and shines a light directly into your own person. This ensemble makes it clear that any of these characters could be the basis for another play.
I left the theatre quibbling about technical matters, all the while chewing over the story.
I look forward to hearing more from Billy Porter.
While I Yet Live
By Billy Porter; directed by Sheryl Kaller
WITH: Elain Graham (Delores), Sheria Irving (Tonya), S. Epatha Merkerson (Maxine), Kevyn Morrow (Vernon), Larry Powell (Calvin), Sharon Washington (Eva) and Lillias White (Gertrude).
Sets by James Noone; costumes by ESOSA; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Leon Rothenberg; original music by Jerome Kirkland Jr.; hair and wig design by Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas; production stage manager, Amanda Spooner; production manager, Mind the Gap; general manager, Toni Marie Davis; associate artistic director, Michelle Bossy. Presented by Primary Stages, Andrew Leynse, artistic director; Elliot Fox, managing director; Casey Childs, executive director, in association with Susan Dietz. At the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 646-223-3010; primarystages.org. Through Oct. 31. Running time: 2:05.