Los Angeles Theater Review: N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK (A Speak Theater Arts Production at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood)

by John Topping on April 7, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Review: N*GGER WETB*CK CH*NK (A Speak Theater Arts Production at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Hollywood)

GETTING OVER RACISM 101

For a show with a title as dangerous as N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk—an evening of confronting racism with comedy, playing this month at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater—it would be difficult to imagine a more tame show. Aside from references to stereotypical penis sizes, it is strictly family fare (though you could argue that, as such, it’s edgy family fare). It has the tone of something that would be appropriate as a tour for educational institutions, and indeed, the vast majority of their performance venues are colleges.

Jackson McQueen (N), Rafael Agustin (W and co-creator), and Dionysio Basco (C) are sweet, utterly non-threatening presences. As a typical racist would say (either as a backhanded compliment or with insistent derogatory undertones), they “act white;” which is to say that they come from backgrounds that didn’t nurture their assigned stereotypes. But as actors making points about racism, they easily slip into their familiar skin-toned roles of malevolence or benevolence. And one has to admit, no matter how accustomed we increasingly become to seeing different races congregating together, it remains unusual to consider a trio comprised of one African American, one Latino, and one Asian. But that is the point, and by the end of the evening, the image has become utterly ordinary

There is a lot of ground to cover here, and it’s covered in a variety of different styles. It opens delightfully with the title words of the show performed as an a cappella rhythmic piece, which almost immediately defangs the power of the words (and that’s a good thing). Along the way, we learn the historical origins of each word. Stereotypes get exaggerated (to the degree possible), examined, and turned inside out. We’re given a quick tour of Los Angeles locations where it might not be unusual to see two of them hanging out together, but which the third has never visited (W and C but not N in East L.A., for instance). We learn the advantages and disadvantages of playing the race card (but either way, “you can never leave home without it”). And in one bit, each performer relays what he sees as the distinct advantages of being a member of one of the other two races, and how he longs for that seemingly grass-is-greener position.

The most successful sequences are true (or so one assumes) personal stories about when each of them first discovered the prejudices that the world waited patiently to hoist upon them. In one of them, Basco tells a story of convincing himself that he was the spitting image of Tom Cruise. In another, McQueen recounts not realizing he wasn’t white until age 13, when an English class was reading out loud The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, putting the N-word (which is ‘n*gger,’ by the way) into laser focus and directed squarely at him. It’s both funny and heartbreaking stuff.

N*W*C originated here in Los Angeles, but they have toured through 40 states, and, although racism in all its ugliness exists here, it’s in the college towns that this show probably packs a bigger punch. It literally serves as educational entertainment, especially for those college kids who are away from some very white hometowns for the first time. The humor is somewhat hit or miss, but, happily, the misses are never groaners and the hits are genuinely funny. Though not a must-see for theatergoers, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and conquering racism with humor is a profound cause, regardless of whether one’s particular funny bone is tickled or not. And admit it: it just feels good to be released from the PC prison and able to say it out loud. Do it with me: Ch*nk!  Wetb*ck!! N*gger!!! Okay, that’s enough; now you can’t say it anymore.

photos courtesy of Speak Theater Arts

N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk
A Speak Theater Arts Production
Barnsdall Gallery Theatre
4800 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood
ends on April 23, 2011
for tickets, call 818.495.4925 or visit NWC Live

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