BO-NITA by Elizabeth Heffron at Portland Center Stage
The emperor has no clothes. Supremely, incomprehensibly awful. Baffled silence of the room says it all: Is this really the best PCS can do? Embarrassing profanity. Tacky, stereotypical underclass characters. Wildly implausible “story” far below audience’s intelligence, sophistication, wit. Norris, closer to 40 than 13, miscast.
Slummin’ it with Honey Boo Boo-Nita: One person show titillates with quirky cartoon cutouts of “working class” characters, but falls short of real social engagement and asks no hard questions
Somewhere around 75% of the way into BO-NITA, an inconsequential 90 minute one person show by Elizabeth Heffron having its world premiere at Seattle Rep, I realized that the eponymous narrator, a 13 year old girl from challenged circumstances in a provincial city (who somehow has the intelligence and cutting wit of a genius Hollywood screenwriter), has no idea why she is telling us her story. The audience isn’t sure either. We’re on a madcap tale through wild and wacky circumstances of woe with young Bo-Nita, whose hapless friends and family make the cast of DUMB AND DUMBER look like rocket scientists. In the mix are beat up cars and dead bodies and drugs and pithy one liners galore from hard-living folks down on their luck on the mean streets of St. Louis.
But with minimal story arc or character development, and a monotonous string of punchlines and visual (imagined) gags, where the essential message over and over is “CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW STUPID AND UNFORTUNATE THESE PEOPLE ARE? WHAT WILL THEY THINK UP NEXT?” it all becomes so much fluff and diversion. Soon enough the show ends with a blasting pop soundtrack, Blondie’s gorgeous DREAMING IS FREE, which effectively dismisses everything we have just seen and says (either from the playwright or director): “Yeah, we’re not sure what it all means, either! But rock on, everyone!”
The challenges involved with presenting real social issues on the mainstream stage, and particularly portraying the have nots of American society, who these days are as far removed from the average Seattle Rep audience member as Mars, are not new. But what stands out in this play is how easily horrible events and circumstances are drained of their actual context and converted into laughs. This approach wants to simultaneously score street cred from naming supposed challenging issues like drug use, domestic abuse, underage sex, rape, and crumbling family structures, while stopping far short of probing either the cause or effects of these issues or exploring their real impacts and costs on society. It lets both the audience and the characters off the hook.
Of course, not every play has to be deathly serious and make the audience think. But BO-NITA announces itself as an example of serious engagement with “tough subject matter”. In marketing materials and publicity, we’re asked to consider the new play as a serious engagement with “political or social themes”. There’s even an absurd placard in the lobby advising us that the play “breaks new ground in terms of the story it tells”. Some of us have a way with words. And others – not have way.
Nothing could be further from the truth. With its tired one person format (often driven by budget constraints as opposed to artistic vision) and stream of comic vignettes about gritty, “plucky” characters the audience will likely never encounter in real life, the play covers such heavily traveled ground in the contemporary American theatre that there should be a well worn path with handrails (and signs to turn back).
By remanufacturing underclass mishaps into comedy (to coin a phrase, this exaggerated style could be called “poorface”), the play comforts and possibly misinforms its well-heeled audience. Far from posing any sort of challenge concerning “the growing divide between rich and poor” or “the shredding of the social safety net” (both concepts have long since become cliches), the show is itself a poster child example of surface entertainment. The most conservative Goldman Sachs partner on earth could bring a bunch of corporate clients to BO-NITA, laugh hilariously about absurd situations and characters they’ll never have to encounter again (“That was weird!”), and return home without ruffling a single feather (and still have time to buy a few BLONDIE albums on iTunes). The play asks no hard questions of the spectators. It challenges not a single belief of its audience and may in fact reinforce a few.
The jarring tone and discrepancy between the actual events we are told about and how we learn to relate to them in the world of the play is established almost immediately when Bo-Nita tells us how she either murdered or severely injured her “semi-ex-stepfather” (this description gets considerably less funny each time it’s repeated), with whom she has had sex, probably against her will.
Now that is some pretty heavy info right there. But it goes over our heads as comedic material quickly follows. The plot, such as it is, is goosed into motion by this initial setup (what will we do with the dead body? etc.), but these initial extreme events are wheeled out so casually, they feel contrived. Actor Hannah Mootz is very talented, and her high speed impressions of the cast of characters here are strong. We’re easily taken in by her accents and mannerisms (Dag, girl!), but the effect is to keep the reality of the characters’ lives at a distance. Throughout the play, as misfortune piles upon slapstick misfortune, if there’s anything we’re trained to do in response to another unpromising turn of events, it’s laugh. But unlike satirical comedy where the laugh is a Trojan horse to sneak in a deeper insight, here it’s just a laugh. Mom’s smoking dope again at the breakfast table. Because – you know – that’s just how she rolls. Get it? Mom’s a character.
And these characters have flair. A LOT of flair. Flair is pinned all over their dramatic beings in every possible form, as if requested by the dramaturg. There are quirks and tics and slang and funny clothes, etc. But to what end? This is the kind of show where folks have names like Colonel T and Grandma Tiny. Lots of color. It has the wide-eyed wonder of a children’s show – but with adult material. Interestingly, the promotional poster features drawn cartoon-like figures, which is perhaps more apt than intended.
The genius young girl (often from a problem family) is seemingly everywhere in American drama. Bo-Nita is a whip smart customer. The problem, of course, is explaining how someone this smart could come from a family this dumb. Throughout the play, we’re asked to simultaneously laugh at how stupid these people are, while seeing no disconnect about how smart Bo-Nita is. I was worried the story was going to end with her heading off to Princeton on a scholarship to become a surgeon. Luckily, that did not happen.
There’s an awkward tension between the vantage point of the audience and the station of the play’s characters. These are people the audience would probably not pause too long to hang with if they actually encountered them, say, in any one of numerous real time underclass operas being performed live on the streets of downtown Seattle. But instead of engaging with the serious social problems we have, all the play asks us to do is laugh at them.
And there is very little funny here in the actual “tough subject matter” BO-NITA hovers around. America is falling behind, and a large number of its citizens have no future. Our tendency to avoid taking responsibility for anti-social, aberrant behavior and instead reformat it as entertainment for the rest of us has serious consequences. Elsewhere around the world, millions of 13 year old girls are studying 8 hours a day to take on careers in medicine, law, and finance. There are likely few plays in India or Korea that attempt to entertain by presenting the woes of failed families and young girls as simply fun and games – hilarious fodder for an evening out.
These youngsters from abroad (after they have immigrated to the US) are going to eat the lunch of witless Bo-Nita style Americans in a few years. Bo-Nita will be lucky to get a job cleaning their houses. But there are no hard questions asked here of Bo-Nita and her cohorts, more than a few of whom will likely end up as real costs to society (paid for by the taxes of Seattle Rep audience members). What does it say about a country that holds up as entertainment for its elites exaggerated slapstick stories of its worse off members falling through the cracks? Probably nothing good.
Aside from problematic material and tone, there is another issue with this show that limits its overall effectiveness. The piece is really a short story read aloud by one actor on stage. There is a lot of spoken dialogue, where Smootz brings different characters to life, and that works fine dramatically. But there is also significant omniscient narrative, which sometimes goes too fast and is harder to engage. On the page, these narrative sections would read well, but on stage there is a lot of telling and not showing, and it drags.
The need for real engagement with the problems of our time is urgent, and the theatre, as one of the few remaining public spaces where citizens still come together, encounter each other, and bear witness to a story, is a place where real issues can be presented and have an impact.
Unfortunately, while BO-NITA may name a few serious issues, it does little more than that.