There are two specific places in Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacaton of Dorian Belle that are likely to change every time this play (which premiered in Washington, D.C., this past April) hits the stage. One is a montage of news reports on unarmed Black people killed by police and other acts of white supremacist terror, such as Charlottesville. The other is a scrolling list of rappers killed in 2018—in the script’s stage directions, Chisholm provides a list, adding “update accordingly” for the latter. Lili-Anne Brown’s staging for Jackalope updates both segments—the montage opens with Atatiana Jefferson’s killing and the scroll includes Nipsey Hussle.
Together they form the “double-edged gat” in the play, to quote the lyrics of P.Y.G., or Petty Young Goons, the hip-hop duo hired to help a Justin Bieber-like Canadian pop star develop a harder musical edge and persona while living with him on a reality show, The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle. They also provide reminders of violence and racism outside the walls of both the onstage reality-television house (neatly captured in Lauren M. Nichols’s design) and of the theater.
As the title implies, there’s a Pygmalion element to Chisholm’s play, with the two Black mentors, Alexand Da Great (Tevion Devin Lanier) and Blacky Blackerson, or just “Black” (Eric Gerard), filling in as Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering to Garrett Young’s privileged and clueless Dorian. Initially, Lanier’s Alexand plays mediator to Black and Dorian’s fraught relationship. He also cautions Black to back off on using the N-word on camera “because we in mixed company,” which results in Black carrying a buzzer from the game Taboo and hitting it in place of the word—which makes its repetition feel even more jarring, though hilarious.
But as the story unfolds, Black develops an honest affection for Dorian (cemented on a skiing trip to Canada), while Alexand feels more discomfited about why they’re doing this project at all (aside from money and exposure, naturally). Angry feedback from “Black Pique” (think Twitter) reinforces the sense that P.Y.G. are selling out.
Chisholm’s play steers away from easy didacticism even as he takes shots at everything from Hamilton to hip-hop artists who embellish their street cred. (Alexand keeps reminding Black that they’re from Naperville, not Chicago.) But the biggest satirical gats come out in a running series of television ads aimed squarely at unexamined white privilege—all featuring a gallery of storefront stalwarts marketing things like “White Man Shoes,” footgear that magically allows you to cut lines and stand on the backs of others, and “White-Coy,” an app that lets Black people call for a white “ally” so they don’t get arrested (or shot) for existing in public.
What gives this show heart as well as heat is that Chisholm’s take-no-prisoners approach still lets us feel sympathy for the characters. Young’s Dorian, the stand-in for every prepackaged Boy Band Blandster imaginable, sincerely wants to understand P.Y.G.’s influences, though that takes the form of telling Black and Alexand “I even took a hip-hop course at an HBCU. It was online. But still.” But then he goes into an exploration of how he has chased “the beat” around the globe that makes it clear he’s trying to be more than a cultural tourist in his own bumbling way.
All three men bond over the complex relationships they have with their parents. Dorian is estranged from his “momager,” Alexand gets regular phone calls from his mom telling him what to do, and Black recalls that his father helped him become a rapper by making him sit down with a dictionary and come up with a hundred different words for each of the obscenities he’d been tossing around. “‘Eviscerate.’ I love words like that, words that sound like what they mean. That word sound like draggin’ a razor blade across some neck skin.” Against the backdrop of fame (or nascent fame, in P.Y.G.’s case), they’re just three guys barely out of adolescence, trying to make sense of their place in the music scene. (Aaron Stephenson’s sound and music design adds texture and nuance throughout the show.)
Of course, for Alexand and Black, that place is always circumscribed by race. Black decries the “crabs in a barrel” mentality of Black Pique, but unlike Dorian, both he and Alexand know that what they do or don’t do will be used as a yardstick for measuring other Black people, not just themselves. By the end of Brown’s smart, savvy, and sometimes achingly truthful production, we’ve seen the “double-edged gat” of cultural appropriation lay open these characters in surprising and hard-to-forget ways. v