While I Yet Live

Family drama is on the menu as Tony winner Billy Porter invites us into his childhood home in Pittsburgh.

Elain Graham, Lillias White, and Larry Powell in Billy Porter's While I Yet Live, directed by Sheryl Kaller, at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street.
Elain Graham, Lillias White, and Larry Powell in Billy Porter's While I Yet Live, directed by Sheryl Kaller, at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street.
(© James Leynse)

Sometimes it's refreshing when an author lets the drama hang out, rather than hiding it behind clever subtext and furtive glances. That's certainly the case with While I Yet Live, now making its world premiere with Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street. Billy Porter (the Tony-winning star of Broadway's Kinky Boots) penned this semiautobiographical tale of a Pentecostal black family in Pittsburgh as a love letter to the strong women in his life. Like most love letters, it has a tendency to wax poetic and verge on maudlin. But it is never boring. While I Yet Live is the kind of fascinating mess that makes not-entirely-clear storylines and tangential monologues forgivable. You simply can't turn your eyes away.

Calvin (Larry Powell) is a young gay black man living with several generations of his family in a big house in Pittsburgh. There's his grandmother Gertrude (Lillias White), Gertrude's sister Delores (Elain Graham), Calvin's sister Tonya (Sheria Irving), and their mother, Maxine (S. Epatha Merkerson). Additionally, the family has a couple of long-term houseguests: Maxine's best friend Eva (Sharon Washington), who is suffering from a terminal illness (AIDS is strongly suggested) and the mysterious war veteran Uncle Arthur (portrayed by an uncredited arm behind a door) who hides in his room all day watching Sanford and Son. Calvin's stepfather Vernon (Kevyn Morrow) is the "man of the house," much to the dismay of the increasingly rebellious Calvin. It's Thanksgiving Day 1994, and this delicate ecosystem is on the verge of collapse.

Porter brutally takes us through it, then across the next 14 years of aftershock. His prose is occasionally didactic, but always painfully honest. This is a play that leans into conflict with reckless abandon. "He touched me for years and years and I let him," Calvin confesses his history of sexual abuse to Eva. "And I liked it." Porter articulates thoughts and feelings onstage that most contemporary playwrights choose to avoid. That alone makes this a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Unfortunately, the too-light touch of director Sheryl Kaller often makes this a confusing journey. Major time shifts occur with only the slightest of hints. Several characters go from living to dead with no convention to signify their passing: They remain seated where they were before, but as ghosts. While this might be explained away as a message about the lasting impression of family, such a statement requires stronger directorial packaging or it risks losing a good chunk of the audience along the way.

Granted, some of the performances help us to catch up: Irving undergoes a remarkable transformation from 12-year-old girl to angry teenager to 26-year-old (still angry) graduate student. The only character to directly address the audience, her atheist evangelism offers a counterpoint to the firebrand Pentecostalism that reigns over the house. One often has to resist the urge to shout amen at the end of her lines. Some audience members give in to temptation.

Equally compelling, Merkerson gives a startlingly realistic performance as a woman living with a disorder that she has self-diagnosed as cerebral palsy. As her body slowly deteriorates, her spirit becomes ever feistier. Merkerson embodies this contradiction with every word and movement, telling the story of how even a woman who seems set in her ways can grow and change.

Esosa's costumes also help subtly note the passage of time: Calvin goes from Kmart realness in the first act to purple bowties and pocket squares in the third, in case we had any doubt about his identity in relation to reality.

Scenic designer James Noone appears to have taken the program-noted setting of "The Big House" quite literally, filling the stage with an enormous two-story home. Big comfy chairs fill the space alongside an upright player piano that eerily underscores the show. This is a house full of activity and music, long after most of the residents are gone. The set feels a bit too big for the venue, pressing right up against the audience and bringing us uncomfortably close to the action.

Still, you'll be glad to have a ringside seat. While I Yet Live is a good old-fashioned family drama, and those are always best experienced up-close and personal.

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