“Honky” Raises the Spectre of Racism in Us All

18 July, 2016

Jordan Elgrably

Amer­i­ca has nev­er been more heart­break­ing than when it is at war with itself, divid­ed down lines of col­or, of so-called “race”—the illu­sion that col­or or eth­nic­i­ty real­ly makes us dif­fer­ent, whethe

r black, white, Arab, Jew, this, that, “us and them.” DNA tests prove beyond a doubt that we are all more inter­con­nect­ed than any­one could ever guess, so that these seem­ing divi­sions can only be per­pet­u­at­ed by fear and stereotypes—indeed, by ignorance.

But a new play called “Honky” has found a way to turn tragedy into com­e­dy, to trans­form pain into hilar­i­ty by virtue of the inevitable satire when we are con­front­ed with our cul­tur­al con­tra­dic­tions. Writ­ten by Greg Kalleres (a play­wright and screen­writer who lives in Brook­lyn) and first per­formed Off-Broad­way in 2013, “Honky” is a 90-minute romp about bas­ket­ball shoes, adver­tis­ing, the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of cul­ture, and racism in the con­tem­po­rary Unit­ed States. 

Actu­al­ly, here’s the sto­ry: “When a young African Amer­i­can is shot for a pair of bas­ket­ball shoes, sales triple among white teens. Mean­while, a new pill guar­an­teed to cure racism adver­tis­es that if you don’t think you need it – you’re prob­a­bly a racist. HONKY takes satir­ic look at the sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship between racism and com­mer­cial­ism, while at the same time ask­ing the ques­tion — is white guilt only for white people?”

A few us of saw Rogue Machine’s pro­duc­tion of “Honky” at the Met The­atre in Los Ange­les, where we were torn between almost con­stant laugh­ter and grief, remind­ed of recent head­lines as the play’s “black” and “white” char­ac­ters con­sis­tent­ly mis­read each oth­er and every­one is a racist. “Honky” is very fun­ny but you nev­er for­get that this is not just a play, but also a reflec­tion of the very real ordeals that are play­ing out on Amer­i­can streets.

Inger Tudor and James Liebman

Direct­ed by Gregg Daniel, “Honky” stars Inger Tudor as a psy­chi­a­trist called upon to deal with ad man James Liebma

n’s white guilt.

There is no ques­tion that as a soci­ety we must call for police vio­lence and reform, and we’ve got to take on hate, whether we’re talk­ing about hate speech from politi­cians or the hate­ful rhetoric of the Islam­o­pho­bia indus­try, for this is no time to let our­selves be divid­ed into small­er groups, pit­ted against each oth­er while the pow­er­ful exploit the peo­ple in so many ways, for exam­ple by not pay­ing their fair share of tax­es, steal­ing our votes, or exac­er­bat­ing Mid­dle East con­flict with manip­u­la­tive for­eign policies.

Tasha Ames and Burl Mose­ley play con­flict­ed lovers.

Tasha Ames and Burl Moseley.

But are we real­ly all racist? I found myself think­ing about the issues “Honky” rais­es long after we left the the­atre. One thing I know for sure: we need to peel away our onion lay­ers with each oth­er and talk hon­est­ly about our feel­ings, our fears, our con­fu­sion with those who appear dif­fer­ent from us. Because frankly, in this coun­try we rarely dis­cuss race or reli­gion or pol­i­tics with

any great depth. We’re afraid of offend­ing fam­i­ly and friends, col­leagues and acquain­tances. This is a mis­take. It’s one of the rea­sons I insist­ed on the cre­ation of a Mid­dle East­ern cul­tur­al cen­ter 15 years ago, in the belief that we need to have safe spaces for pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions about the issues that affect us all.


Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.

Black AmericansRacismWhite guilt