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While I Yet Live
By Elyse Sommer
While I Yet Live is actually the second time Billy Porter has donned the memoirist's hat to revisit his experience of growing up black and gay in an evangelical Christian family. Ghetto Superstar, the title of that 2005 staged memoir attests to Porter's having a healthy dose of actorly braggadocio needed to do the memoir thing on stage with yourself as the narrator. While Porter was able to list some Broadway and movie roles in his resume, he was hardly a superstar. Unless you counted the superstar diva air he brought to his performance.
Fast forward nine years. His newest revisit to his Pittsburgh youth, While I Yet Live, could easily be subtitled a superstar's story. Billy Porter is indeed a star now, thanks to his memorable Belize in the Signature's revival of Tony Kushner's Angels in America ; and even more so, for his his multi-award winning role as the flamboyant drag performer Lola in the super hit musical Kinky Boots .
The problem with While I Yet Live is that Porter isn't in it. There's no music, except when one of the play's characters occasionally triggers a bit of incidental melody by pressing a button on the upright piano in the living room of James Noone's two-story set.
The absence of Porter's dynamic diva presence might be overlooked if Porter the playwright hadn't hamstrung himself with an overambitious script. That ambition was to expand the coming of age saga of a young man's experience as a Black, gay, Christian man into an epic family drama that involves his family's coming to terms with a lot more than his homosexuality. According to pre-show interviews, it also intended the play to come off as Porter's love letter to the women who raised him, especially his mother.
Unfortunately, Mr. Porter's little bit of everything approach adds up to a play without a strong central focus. It doesn't quite work as a memoir since the author's stand-in comes off more as a peripheral than a central character.
The larger drama is equally problematic. Its religious subtext lacks subtlety, as does the detour from the kitchen-sink realism to a more non-naturalistic style that turns the family members into ghostly characters. In fact, these abstract moments are sad reminders of the wonderfully poetic mythical characters often seen in the works of another Pittsburgh born playwright, the late, great August Wilson.
All this is not to say that While I Yet Live doesn't have its assets. Chief among these is S. Epatha Merkenson who radiates emotional and physical pain and feistiness as Porter's crippled mother Maxine.
Merkenson's Maxine is well supported by Shera Irving as her daughter Tonya; also by Sharon Washington as her terminally ill best friend Eva, the play's first character to metamorphose into a Greek chorus-like figure. The play actually gets off to a promising start with Irving's sassy fourth wall breaking introduction as 12-year-old Tonya followed by a touching scene between Maxine and Eva.
Nothing wrong either with structuring the seven-year time span around three Thanksgiving dinners. Except that the other characters are not as well developed and consequently don't allow the actors playing them to make much of an impression. That includes the two men, Larry Powell's Calvin and Kevyn Morrow as the troublesome stepfather Vernon. The wonderful Lillas White is also wasted as Maxine's mother Gertrude, as is Elain Graham as Maxine's sister Delores.
Sheryl Kaller also directed Terence McNally's Mothers and Sons another play about a mother who's too set in her attitude. Unlike Tyne Daly's uptight mother in that play, Porter's Maxine gives her a chance to work with a character who still has a chance to reconnect with her son.
For theater goers who like their stories more heartfelt and sentimental than raunchy, While I Yet Live, may well be the heartstring tugger they're looking for. But anyone up to a cheekier, more original take on growing up Black, gay and church going in America, might want to check out Robert O'Hara's also semi-autobiographical Bootcandy still playing further west at Playwrights Horizon. Having seen both plays, my prayer is for a moratorium on this by now much told story.