It’s probably best not to scrutinize While I Yet Live too carefully on a structural level: As a memory play, its chosen narrator is the one character with the least to gain by looking back, and it dramatizes things outside the rememberer’s POV; as a play that mixes realism with magic realism, it fudges the rules of the latter—are the spirits of the departed manifestations of conscience or real; and if only the former, as seems to be implied, how do they know things the living cannot?
The reasons why it’s best not to examine this too closely—particularly in a review—are two. The first: Spoiler city; to particularize the discrepancies is to give away too much. Which leads me to the second reason: The only reason to care about the first is because the audience loves the play so damn much that the structural fine points—though perhaps not negligible in a literary context—seem like academic carping against the evidence of a positive, cathartic, visceral response. Billy Porter’s play is one of those rare examples in which the aggregate effect essentially neutralizes structural anomalies.
This may well have to do with While I Yet Live being both Porter’s first play and at least semi-autobiographical (Mr. Porter is the Tony Winning actor who created the role of, and still currently plays, the drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots), thus almost assuredly having the early rush of white-heat inspiration behind it. It’s a play about an extended African-American family in Pittsburgh, first seen in an unspecified year a decade or two ago. Tonya (Sheria Irving) introduces us to growing up in an era before spankings were considered bad parenting; when she was 12 and her older brother Calvin (Larry Powell) is still tiptoeing around the fact that he’s gay, when in the house. But this is the day when he crosses that line, and basic tenets of Christianity and faith, long held by his mother Maxine (S. Epatha Merkerson) are challenged. But there are already cracks in her resolve, from her own physical condition, a progressive palsy, and caring for her terminally ill best friend Eva (Sharon Washington) whose cancer hasn’t at all been helped by prayer. And once emboldened by confronting his mother—angrily, but with respect—it doesn’t take much pushing from his abusive stepfather, who is Tonya’s blood father, Vernon (Kevyn Morrow) for Calvin to move forward into a full-throttle rebellion expressed with less restraint. Figuring into this dynamic are also Calvins’s grandmother Gertrude (Lillias White) and aunt Delores (Elain Graham).
As melodramatic as all this sounds in thumbnail, it actually plays out in moments of riveting authenticity; and a great deal of the play is also spectacularly funny, particularly as the audience, particularly the African American audience, mark places of total identification with their own dynamics regarding family, home, church, love and faith.
It’s beautifully acted under the direction of Sheryl Kaller, to the point where, except for the Act Two passages that veer into magic realism—passages that made me very aware of the writing—there were long, long stretches where I simply forgot I was watching a play, and really bought into the “reality” of watching a family dynamic both imploding and reassembling into a new configuration.
And since Mr. Porter and cohorts can pull that off…maybe the rest, the stuff that "doesn't matter" tio the lay audience, is even addressable. That’s the great thing about theatre, and in particular a play that seems like it might stick around for a while. Like families, they can develop and grow and keep moving forward…
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