In this fast changing world, who you are can be as complex as what you are in the stories told in JC Lee’s newly commissioned play “What You Are” now up and running on the Sheryl and Harvey White Stage through June 30th.
For most of us, as the world turns, we tend to go with the flow. But if it keeps turning in ways that sweep us under the rug and we become invisible, we wake up one morning and find there is no place left to go.
Don: “It’s hard to not know what’s alright to say one day isn’t the next, that you’re a bigot because you don’t think transsexuals should go in any bathroom they want, or that the joke you used to tell isn’t okay anymore. It piles up. One thing after another until you’re so goddamned confused and frustrated you feel like your head’s gonna explode.”
If that sounds like something you might have heard recently, imagine how Don (Jonathan Walker) felt when everything he held dear, or thought was true almost all his life, was erased with the swipe of a broad brush stroke when he went to interview for a new job.
Fifty- something year old Don was raised and grew up on his family farm in a small Nevada town. The farm and the town have gone to seed and by buying up all the unused property, the new kids on the block build algorithms to capture mass markets. Don does odd jobs and deliveries; some work for the new company now occupying space next to where his ranch once was.
The start up already had 365,000 subscribers when Don applied for a job. While trying to learn how to use his cell phone to further enhance his productivity, he learns from his new young boss, Hector (Adrian Anchondo) that so far his ratings are only a four on a scale of five stars. It’s at this juncture that a war of words, misunderstandings and hostility turns into world war three.
|Jonathan Walker and Adrian Anchondo|
Don and Hector come from opposite ends of the population spectrum; one an old white man who never had to do anything to prove himself because his country catered to white men like himself, the other, a young Latinx who graduated summa cum laude from Stanford and had to prove himself all his life.
Hector sees in his conversations with Don coded words and “racist bullshit” when he thinks Don expects entitlements. “I deserve better than that than to have a math problem tell you what I’m worth. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve watched you guys turn this place …whatever it is…”
“I’m sorry, Don, the whole point of what I do is to intentionally upend the world run by people like you who think by virtue of their privilege, everything ought to be theirs.” If he sounds like a prick, well he is, but that’s for later.
When Don returns home after being let go for a number of reasons, not the least being that in a frustrating temper -tantrum, he crashed Hector’s glass desk to smithereens with the one chair in the office, his daughter, Katie (Jasmine Savoy Brown) and wife Sigourney (Omozé Idehenre) are speechless after they hear his story. Both are supportive, but for different reasons.
The Old Globe commissioned Lee who also writes for TV, theatre and film. In a Playbill interview the playwright commented on how his father’s job was eliminated because of the economy. That, and a speech he heard by then candidate Donald Trump at the Republican Convention when he tried to understand the candidates appeal. Lees father was completely devastated; “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life now.”
|Adrian Anchondo and Jasmin Savoy Brown|
To say that Lee’s play touches on every aspect of the economic, racial, political, tribal, age, and patriotism variety would be an understatement. Hector sees Don as a conservative and racially bias old white man without knowing he has been married to Sigourney, an African-American for over thirty years. He has a biracial daughter Katie about the age of Hector. Along the way she proves herself to be a perfect foil against Hector’s own racially and politically charged attitudes. As one who knows, she sees right through him.
In a series of short scenes we find both Sigourney, who has some back problems, and Katie who put off going to college to care for her mother, going to bat for their husband/father. Sigourney brings beautiful pie as a peace offering and Katie offers a piece of herself and then something else that will help Don and devastate Hector. And so it goes.
Don hooks up with his old time buddy Randy (Mike Sears) who adds to the good old boys chit chat about the changing tides and how his son came out to him and how he keeps referring to a-gay, not quite understanding the whole thing. But it’s the trust and understanding the men have in common that’s missing in today’s world of iPhones, iPads, television ("His TV is bigger than my double bed") and the Alt right radio stations that cement their friendship. Randy is a bit softer and less affected by the change, Mike Sears’s natural way convinces.
|Mike Sears and Jonathan Walker|
Lee might make Don look like the die was cast for the Trump loyalists, feeling left out of the American dream, but Hector is something else. Lets just say he is not who he shows up to be. As politically correct as he might think he is, he is the complete opposite. He’s arrogant, hateful, revengeful, out of touch, and just plain mean spirited.
On some level both Don and Hector are cut from the same cloth, they just reach for different stars in the heavens to complete their journeys. It’s mind -boggling and incongruent that two opposites can be the same.
Director Patricia McGregor is so damn on spot with all of her actors that it sparked conversations well into the evening. On some level, I was almost sympathetic with Don, as the left behind generation. Silly me. That’s the genius of being an in touch director. She knows her characters well and gives them the latitude to be who they are in every situation.
Leading up to Don’s outburst because of what Don describes as a misunderstanding and Hector sees as racially charged, the lightheartedness and playfulness of Hector’s showing Don how to log into his phone, McGergor has them in reversal mode changing the mood from one of simply ‘this is how you do it’, to I’m calling security if you don’t leave immediately. Her intent is quite obvious here.
Walker’s Don can come off as sympathetic at first, but as the charges against him by Hector close in on him, he goes on to do some pretty despicable stuff. On the other hand, he does have a soft spot especially for his family that is clearly missing in Hector’s character.
Anchondo’s Hector, is the confidant, up and coming filling the American dream 30 something college grad. When we first meet him he seems right for this new company. He shows up to the minute success in anything electronic. He seems personable at first. At an outside glance he appeard everything you might expect the younger ganeration.
|Omoze Idehenre and Jonathan Walker|
But a few nasty reveals puts Hector in the least likely to be loved category. He tells Sigourney, who is collecting disability checks for getting hurt on her last job, to get off her butt and get a job.
He’s bringing Don to court for a simple misunderstanding and he can’t wait to tell Don that he bedded his daughter. His scorn for everything he deems wrong brings out a superiority he doesn’t deserve. Nope. No stars for that behavior.
Mike Sears is the perfect guy for Don to reminisce with and still be trusted while remaining friends. Jasmin Savoy Brown is a moving target for speaking her liberal thoughts and acting on them. Her performance brought into being a new generation of thinkers not afraid to be who they are. Omozé came in with a soft and warm motherly heart and remained true to herself throughout.
Rachel Myers set is almost bare bones, but doesn’t detract, Sherrice Mojgani lighting and Luqman Brown’s sound leaves unanswered questions at the very end of this one act challenge that you don't want to end. Elisa Benzoni’s costume design fits every age group,
Lee considers ‘what you are’ as a lead off challenge. Is who you show up to be what you are, or is there more to it?
With a strong ensemble and a ready for prime time discussion “What You Are” is an up to date window into a world that’s changing and most are not ready
Two thumbs up!
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 30th
Organization: The Old Globe
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Ticket Prices: Start at $30.00
Venue: Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre
Photo: Jim Cox