'While I Yet Live': Theater Review

James Leynse
The fledgling playwright has clearly taken the advice to write what you know; he just hasn't written it well

Tony-winning stage actor Billy Porter ("Kinky Boots") makes his playwriting debut with this autobiographical family drama

Billy Porter has long been known for his exuberantly over-the-top stage performances, the most recent being his Tony Award-winning turn in the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots. The actor applies the same florid technique to his playwriting debut, While I Yet Live, a wildly overstuffed kitchen-sink drama that feels like it was shaped over decades of intense therapy sessions. One can only hope that it's not as autobiographical as it's purported to be, since the litany of family dysfunctions on display is enough to have fueled a dozen episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Set over the course of fourteen years — from 1994 to 2008 — in the playwright's native Pittsburgh, the drama receives its world premiere from Off-Broadway's Primary Stages. It revolves around Porter's alter-ego Calvin (Larry Powell), whose homosexuality is deeply disturbing to his religious, physically handicapped mother Maxine (Law & Order veteran S. Epatha Merkerson).

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But that's just one of many traumatic situations depicted. Others include the secret affair of Maxine's sister Eva (Sharon Washington) with a local pastor, even while she's suffering from cancer; the sexual abuse of Calvin and his younger sister Tonya (Sheria Irving) at the hands of their stepfather Vernon (Kevyn Morrow), of which their mother was aware; Maxine's revelation that she was raped by a cousin as a child; the unseen Uncle Arthur, who stays locked in his bedroom, apparently suffering from war-related PTSD; and a long-ago affair between Maxine's mother Gertrude (Lillias White) and Arthur, the husband of her barren sister Delores (Elain Graham).

You practically need a cheat sheet to keep track of it all, especially since the tyro playwright reveals serious deficiencies when it comes to basic exposition. Years pass with nary a signifier; characters disappear only to return as ghosts, although it's hard to tell whether they're alive or dead.

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The blunt dialogue is hopelessly cliché-ridden, from Calvin's "I've been waiting all my life for someone to see me… God made me this way," through his sister's admonition to "Let it go," to Maxine finally coming to embrace her son's sexual identity by declaring, "This cycle of dysfunction is broken right now!" By the time the surviving characters band together for a communal recital of "The Lord's Prayer," your eyes will hurt from excessive rolling.  

Director Sheryl Kaller, who handled similarly themed material to much better effect in the Broadway dramas Next Fall and Mothers and Sons, is unable to bring coherence to the increasingly strained proceedings. And while Merkerson delivers a powerful turn as the conflicted mother, such talented supporting players as White and Washington are given too little to do.

While I Yet Live is clearly a heartfelt effort by its fledging playwright, depicting experiences covered in a different key in Porter's 2005 cabaret solo show, Ghetto Superstar: The Man That I Am. But exorcising personal demons is not necessarily enough to produce compelling drama.

Cast: Elain Graham, Seria Irving, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kevyn Morrow, Larry Powell, Sharon Washington, Lillias White
Director: Sheryl Kaller
Playwright: Billy Porter
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music: Jerome Kirkland, Jr.
Presented by Primary Stages, in association with Susan Dietz

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