Playwright: Aurin Squire
At: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252; Stage773.com; $40. Runs through: Aug. 12
When Michael Jackson's album Thriller came out in 1982, it became a cultural touchstone. When Jackson died in 2009 after years of tabloid gossip and accusations of sexual abuse ( he was acquitted in court ), it was the Thriller-era Michaelwho dominated MTV and reimagined the music video with the title trackmany chose to remember.
That Michael is also at the heart of Aurin Squire's Defacing Michael Jackson, in which a group of Black kids in Opa-locka, Florida ( Squire's hometown ), form a Michael Jackson fan club in 1984. This mostly consists of going to the home of Obadiah ( or "Obie" ), the only one whose family has a VCR, and watching the Thriller video several times a week. When a white kid moves into the neighborhood who also loves Jacksonand whose father has the means to help the club realize its dream of putting up a public mural of the superstarit sets in play a series of shifting loyalties and confrontations. Crossover appeal can't serve as a cure-all for white privilege.
Squire's play started out as a one-act, and the grimmer second act in this Flying Elephant Productions staging by Alexis J. Roston feels like it loses some steam by the end. But the four members of the castespecially Christopher Taylor as Obie and Jory ( JoJo ) Pender as Frenchy, the president of the fan clubdo lovely work embodying much younger people who are on the cusp of figuring out who they really are, for better or worse.
From Obie's initial praise of 1984 as "the year of the eternal future," the foursome deals with sexual awakening, class envy, colorism ( relatively privileged Obie is described as "high yellow," while Frenchy's darker complexion earns her abuse ) and other thorny issues. Not all of these get the attention they arguably deserveparticularly what's going on with Jack ( Sam Martin ), the white kid in the group. ( His real name is Wesley, but the others rename him, a la "Cracker Jack." ) He carries damage from his father, including the poison of racist ideas.
There's also the casual cruelty the kids show toward club members Red and Yellowtwins cunningly played by Eldridge Shannon III with just a shift in headgear. The latter is a delinquent and the former is called "retarded" because he stutters.
As the mural takes shape over the course of the show, it's clear that it can't cover up the growing problems in a town that, by 2004, had the highest violent crime rate of any U.S. city. The hope that Jackson's success represents for the kids will soon be overshadowed by AIDS and crack and the ceaseless grind of racial oppression. But Squire also reminds us of the sheer joy amid the heartbreaks of findingfor one brief point in timepeople who love what you love and want to rock with you.