BWW Reviews: Billy Porter Turns Playwright With WHILE I YET LIVE
Normally I would object to playgoers voicing their approval of the actions of the evening's drama while the play is in progress, and even finishing actors' lines with them, but I'll bet that vocal displays of spirituality are exactly what Tony Award-winning actor turned playwright Billy Porter had in mind.
Like Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy at Playwright's Horizons, a major theme of While I Yet Live is the experience of growing up gay and black in America; specifically, in this case, among a group of strong and spiritual Christian women.
Largely autobiographical (the character meant to represent the playwright winds up making his living performing on Broadway), the play is set in designer James Noone's impressive rendering of the large Pittsburgh home where Calvin (Larry Powell) grew up. The play is introduced by Calvin's sister, Tonya (determined and spirited Sheria Irving), who gets the biblical references rolling right away. This is a play filled with characters who freely quote scripture in conversation. On the evening I attended, much of the audience reacted as if attending a lively church service, which seemed appropriate to the style of director Sheryl Kaller's presentational production.
Tonya has deferred her dreams in order to take care of her disabled mother, Maxine (wonderful S. Epatha Merkerson), a job that becomes more and more demanding after Calvin leaves home after too many conflicts over his homosexuality.
The supportive ladies of the household include Maxine's mother (Lillias White in a barely-there role), aunt (Elain Graham) and close friend (Sharon Washington). Calvin's stepdad (Kevyn Morrow) is an uneasy presence.
The play spans several years. Characters die, but appear as memories. Additional issues that arise include infidelity, sexual abuse and terminal disease but the crowded drama leaves little room for anything to be explored fully until the second act, which is mostly about Maxine, now barely getting around on a wheelchair, coming to terms with Calvin's sexual orientation when he visits home as a successful actor. Merkerson is extremely touching as the physically failing women whose faith, big heart and unending feistiness help her make peace with her past and her children's futures.
It's Merkerson's performance that lifts the evening above the playwright's outline of a drama. But if While I Yet Live seems drenched in sentimentality, it comes off as earnest and is often likeable. Those looking for a couple of hours of spiritual inspiration and warmth may find it here.