Review: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” (Jackalope Theatre Company)

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

“P.Y.G or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle” has a lot to say about appropriation and authenticity, alongside covering a metric ton of other subjects and theatrical styles. Beyond acting as a reality show satire, an adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” and a dramatic exercise in dunking on Justin Bieber, the play explores much about the way we interact across races and cultures. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s script, combined with Lili-Anne Brown’s direction makes for a winning combination in a story that stops being nice and, slightly dulling to its impact in the end, starts getting real

Alexand Da Great (Tevion Devin Lanier) and Blacky Blackerson (Eric Gerard) are two Chicago — actually, Black is from Naperville, Xand reminds him — rappers on the cusp of major fame. They agree to star in a reality show with, as well as live with Canadian pop star Dorian Belle (Garrett Young), in an effort to gain more exposure with a larger (read: white) audience, and to make “white people bread.” Dorian wants to make music with them, having recently fallen in love with hip hop. But in order for this white artist to make authentic music, Xand and Black must school him in the ways of their art form. What starts as a series of lessons in history, and putting rocks in Dorian’s mouth to give him a growlier sound, quickly morphs into an unwanted transformation, where Xand and Black must examine whether or not they are losing their own authenticity and sense of self during the project. 

Chisholm’s script covers a lot of ground, but does so with a ton of invention and humor. Characters not only hold Real World-style confessionals, they also speak their deepest thoughts off the cuff directly to the audience, and at one point, literally mark their territory. Xand and Black question what it means to hold the spotlight as black men, something Dorian cannot possibly understand. Digs are made at polished music, such as “Hamilton” and boy band-style pop, with real world violence and injustice creeping in at the corners of every dialogue the men share. The inventiveness compliments Chisholm’s theatricality, which embraces the over-the-top nature of reality TV performances, while allowing character foibles to outstrip even the curated presentations they make of themselves. The scene work borders on the absurd at times, and if the playwright cannot sustain such an energetic dramatic build all the way through the play’s conclusion, that may partly be the point. The questions Alexand Da Great, Blacky Blackerson, and Dorian Belle tackle are not easily answered, so providing any clear answer at all to their conflict might tarnish the progress they have made together.

Eric Gerard, Garrett Young, and Tevion Devin Lanier/Photo: Joel Maisonet.

Brown continues to be one of the most dynamic directors in Chicago. She encourages actors to make physical choices, and it pays off well in “P.Y.G.,” with Gerard darting from place to place with smoothness and presence, and Young putting on a hip hop artist air that is at once awkward and endearing. Stuck between the two is Lanier, whose quiet, no-nonsense demeanor marks him the most practical and clear-eyed of the trio. The friction between the men is never less than surprising, and sparks of joy are given their full moment, so that tension bubbling under the surface never drowns out the characters’ sincere appreciation for one another.

Interstitial, absurd commercials for products such as “De-Woke Spray” and “Soundtrax” (a product that allows white people to coolly enter a room to music made and performed by black artists) abound throughout the production. They are cleverly constructed, as they were clearly shot with Jackalope members and friends, and filmed throughout or near familiar Chicago haunts. This homemade, kitschy feel makes the content of the commercials land even harder, as the separate standards held for white people and people of color mount over and over in a ridiculous world that is, sadly, an all-too-recognizable one.

Ultimately, it is hard to encapsulate how good this production is, how big it goes; it hits hard and fast, contains all manner of delightful performances, and speaks to now in a way that can be rare for new plays. Check it out if you’re a fan of electric, thoughtful theatre.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rap, reality, and absurdity combine in this electric comedy-drama.

Show: “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle”

Company: Jackalope Theatre Company

Venue: The Broadway Armory (5917 N Broadway)