Theater / Film
Review: Miami New Drama’s ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ well acted but misses its chance to soar
Xavier Edward King and Joshua Hernandez in a scene from Miami New Drama’s world premiere of Aurin Squire’s “Defacing Michael Jackson” at the Colony Theatre, Miami Beach, through April 2. (Photo courtesy of Stian Roenning)
Aurin Squire’s “Defacing Michael Jackson” is a memory play, at least in part.
Getting its world premiere by Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, the piece is about five teens trying to navigate life, love and a turbulent world in Opa-locka circa 1984. It was sparked by the playwright’s memories of himself and his friends doing the same, albeit some years later.
Squire, who is also a successful television writer (“Evil,” “The Good Fight” and “This Is Us”), blended fiction with lingering memories, then juxtaposed his coming-of-age story against another element: the way we escape by idolizing music superstars.
In this case, the beloved icon is the late King of Pop.
Squire’s characters are members of a Michael Jackson fan club, and they’re soon tasked with creating a mural to pay permanent tribute to “MJ” in their Miami-area city, a place dotted with famous Moorish-style buildings. Sounds exciting and easy enough, but the kids are soon busy squabbling over, well, everything.
Obadiah or Obie (Xavier Edward King) isn’t the fan club president, but he is the leader of his pack of friends, a handsome kid whose family has a little more dough — “ghetto fabulous, that’s us,” he says.
Frenchy (Sydney Presendieu) is the control freak who heads the Opa-locka chapter of the club. She’s got a detailed dreamy future mapped out, one that includes marriage to her idol and then, maybe eventually, Obie.
Twins Yellow (he stutters) and Red (he’s violent and a thief) are regularly beaten by their father (Dylan Rogers plays both, as well as a slimy city commissioner).
The status quo gets upended when a kid named Wesley (Joshua Hernandez) shows up. Most obvious is that he’s white (duh), while the others are Black, hence the name his new friends bestow: Jack, as in Cracker Jack. He hates it, but Obie’s attitude is “too bad, so sad” since they all go by nicknames.
Soon, something else becomes obvious: Jack has begun exploring his sexual orientation under disturbing circumstances. And he goes for Obie, big time.
Coming out, colorism, post-riot looting, sexual violence, racism, parental cruelty – those are just some of the issues in “Defacing Michael Jackson.” The kids are often funny, sure, but their words also shock and insult and pierce like daggers. Plenty are aimed at Frenchy, as when Red says, “Dark, midnight-looking-gorilla Black bitch…” And later, Obie chimes in, “You think anyone will ever love your ugly midnight ass?”
Director Shaun Patrick Tubbs gets strong, compelling performances from the young adult actors playing high school kids (more on that in a moment). But what he and Squire don’t quite achieve is finding a seamless, compelling way to incorporate Michael Jackson as an unseen presence.
Yes, thanks to composer and sound designer Quentin Chiappetta you hear that intoxicating bass line from the beginning of “Thriller.” Different kids do the briefest snippets of MJ songs. Everybody dons one sequined glove, and the actors perform a short but killer dance sequence at the curtain call (King gets to moonwalk). What choreographer Randolph Ward has dreamed up is the kind of longed-for moment that makes the often-silent crowd go wild.
Designer Frank J Oliva, a Cuban-American Miami native, has created sets for theaters throughout the country as well as locally for Miami New Drama, Area Stage and GableStage. But this one is just baffling, as it ignores Opa-locka’s distinctive look with an environment that provides zero sense of place.
The “Defacing Michael Jackson” set looks like a temple designed in the Brutalist or industrial architectural style, a place appropriate for idol worship. Different levels and ways of accessing the space give the cast a variety of playing areas, which are further defined by Nicole E. Lang’s vividly colorful lighting.
Eventually, the large visage of Michael Jackson appears, but it looks more like the Wizard of Oz than the King of Pop. In Squire’s script, the teens are supposed to be creating a mural, then they switch to something that sounds more like a mosaic. What’s onstage at the Colony is a bas-relief version of Jackson’s face, but as Squire has Frenchy observe, the end result was “sloppy,” flawed and didn’t last long.
Back to the actors who, thanks to director Tubbs and their own arsenal of skills, deliver performances full of boldness, subtlety, fearlessness and abundant energy.
As Obadiah or Obie, Chicago-based King radiates the sort of magnetism that understandably attracts Frenchy and Jack. He is vulnerable and unsure as the new kid presses for a different kind of sexual exploration (the sensitive intimacy choreography is by Nicole Perry), he’s anxious to find a way to make peace between Frenchy and Jack, and when his sexual orientation is called into question, he goes on the attack in the ugliest way.
Also serving as the play’s narrator, King conveys the hindsight that comes with age and the too-early 2009 death of the Opa-locka kids’ idol. Enhancing that aspect of Obie’s role might deepen the storytelling and further blend its Jackson/coming-of-age threads.
Presendieu, in her second professional production since graduating from Miami’s New World School of the Arts (the first was “Mlima’s Tale” for Zoetic Stage), is initially more soft-spoken than the men. But as Frenchy begins to express her longing for love (she’ll randomly grab Obie and ask for a hug or kiss) and as Jack is seemingly dethroning her from her power position in all things Michael Jackson, she turns far fiercer.
Costume designer Grier Coleman has created a signature childlike look for Presendieu’s Frenchy: bib overalls worn over a variety of cute mid-‘80s tops. But once a lascivious Red explicitly threatens to attack and rape her, she fights back ferociously in an adrenaline rush survival mode (Lee Soroko’s excellent fight choreography dials up the intensity whenever disputes turn physical).
Dylan Rogers, another Chicago actor, more than meets the challenge of playing three distinct characters. His Red is a thug in the making, while Red’s twin Yellow (Coleman dresses the twins in color-coded looks) is a more decent soul with a penchant for showing up unannounced and startling the bejesus out of his friends. Rogers’s brief turn as the adult commissioner conveys another sort of duality: the public charm and true personality of a two-faced politician.
Hernandez, a Miami actor now based in New York, gives a wonderfully detailed performance as Jack. Having played upper-class characters in two race-themed plays at GableStage (“Admissions” and “The White Card”), Hernandez must navigate far shakier ground as Jack. He’s damaged, lonely, eager to make friends and find a deeper connection in this wholly new environment. He evolves from nervous to resolute in his desires to a kid who eventually shows his own true colors.
“Defacing Michael Jackson” runs an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. That’s not especially long, but the play occasionally drags, despite the best and most energetic efforts of Tubbs and the cast. Much of Squire’s insightful writing does fly by, so perhaps some editing and an enhanced thematic blend would take care of the slow spots. As is, the play could be staged anywhere. But more of Opa-locka and Michael Jackson would make it a stronger, more distinctive piece of theater.
WHAT: “Defacing Michael Jackson” by Aurin Squire
WHERE: Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through April 2
COST: $46.50-$76.50 (includes service fee)
INFORMATION: 305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org