Winding down its inaugural season, Flying Elephant Productions stages the Midwest premiere of the racially-charged dark comedy, Defacing Michael Jackson. Set in 1984, and featuring a quartet of young people as Jackson’s biggest fans, Defacing Michael Jackson started as a tribute to the power of the music crafted by The King of Pop, however that was quickly eclipsed by a script featuring adolescent sexual identity issues, racism, sexism, classism with a hint of incest. Directed by Alexis J. Roston and written by Aurin Squire, Defacing Michael Jackson is a slow simmer of a tale, with bits of Jackson’s own choreography dividing scenes, building to a jaw dropping scene at the end of act one that turned the play on its ear. No spoilers here, but this one is definitely not for the kiddos.
Protagonist Obadiah (Christopher Taylor), Obie for short, is the handsome student everyone wants to befriend. He is tall, smart, friendly and in 1984 Opa-locka Florida, the only member of his class who has a VCR with a loop of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” playing nonstop. As a member of the town’s exclusive Michael Jackson fan club, he is joined by Frenchy (Jory JoJo Pender) a lovely and spirited young woman with a less than subtle crush on Obie, hidden only to him. Playing twins, Eldridge Shannon III is both Red and Yellow, a trouble maker who stirs it up on both Frenchy and Obie, that is until Jack (Sam Martin) short for Crackerjack, moves to town and whishes to join the club. Being white and affluent he can help make the fan clubs’ goal come to fruition, a giant mosaic tile tribute to Jackson himself funded by his family. While his father has the money to make their fantasy a reality, the question persists, at what cost? Equal parts white savior and white devil, Martin’s Jack rocks the very foundation of this core group of friends. Culminating in a final scene in act one that caused uncomfortable and stunned gasps from the audience the night I attended. The burgeoning sexual advance was something I didn’t see coming, but the added “this is something my father likes” line turned awkward teen-aged fumbling into something significantly darker. It is no secret Jackson faced multiple lawsuits and charges of sexual abuse toward the end of his own career, so it is tough to tell if this plot twist was a purposeful metaphor, or just a distressing coincidence. Perhaps both. I believe that is left up to the audience to decide for themselves.
The darker second act proved no character would exit unscathed. Sexual blackmail, hidden and not so hidden lust and character betrayal was more Dynasty than any of my junior high experiences, but as the monument to Jackson is unveiled, so was the irrefutable damage each character purposely inflicted upon one another. The standout here is Taylor’s Obie. A strong dancer and commanding presence on Stage 773’s intimate stage, all eyes were certainly glued on him. Pender’s Frenchy also resonated, flipping from authoritative in the club meetings to vulnerable as she was bullied for both her looks and abused because of her gender. Watching her character absorb the abuse, both verbal and physical, wasn’t easy, but I fundamentally believe that was the point. Shannon’s Red and Yellow would have been a more effective villain with more rehearsal time. His nervous giggles during scenes broke both character and story tension.
Defacing Michael Jackson started as a fan letter to The King of Pop, but quickly morphed into so much more. Using sound bites of all too familiar music to link the narrative, Squire’s script punctuated the divides between community and culture that plagued society then as much as it does now. While enjoying Jackson’s “Rock With You,” “P.Y.T.,” “Beat It” and more, the story doesn’t shy away from the trials and tribulations of growing up in a world much darker and sinister than any familiar pop ballad would or could suggest. Defacing Michael Jackson will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but theater and art is created to challenge and provoke. For that, Defacing Michael Jackson may not have you screaming “I Want You Back” when discussing the issues of being “Black and White” in contemporary America, but the themes will stay with “The Man In The Mirror” long after the curtain drops.
Flying Elephant Productions’ Defacing Michael Jackson is now playing at Stage 773 through August 12, 2018