Review: Defacing Michael Jackson (Flying Elephant Productions)

| July 29, 2018

JoJo Pender, Chris Taylor and Eldridge Shannon III star in Defacing Michael Jackson           

Defacing Michael Jackson 

Written by Aurin Squire
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Aug 12  |  tix: $40  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Compelling, multifaceted story stalls with too much telling,
not enough showing


Samuel Martin, Chris Taylor, JoJo Pender and Eldridge Shannon III star in Defacing Michael Jackson

Flying Elephant Productions presents
Defacing Michael Jackson

Review by Lauren Whalen

I remember dancing around the living room to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. I was a little white girl with college-educated parents who had the means to enroll me in ballet – and the time and energy to dance to Michael with me. The characters in Defacing Michael Jackson are in a different situation. They are barely in their teens, living in a black neighborhood in Florida with parents who either beat them, drink or just aren’t around. For me, Michael Jackson was fun to watch. For these kids, he was “a poor boy from Gary, Indiana with a fat nose and a hot voice.” In 1984, to these characters and kids like them, he was hope. Defacing Michael Jackson starts as an 80’s nostalgia piece and ends as a Chris Taylor, Samuel Martin, Eldridge Shannon III and JoJo Pender star in Defacing Michael Jackson 2rumination on race, class and childhood. If only the middle weren’t so very messy.

Playwright Aurin Squire won the 2014 Act One Writing Contest at Lincoln Center, and as a result Defacing Michael Jackson’s one-act version was published by Samuel French. Once I learned this, it made sense why this two-act, two-hour production feels padded. In between Squire’s thoughtful and nuanced two-person scenes are monologues full of exposition and soul-searching. The protagonist Obie (a terrific Chris Taylor) narrates throughout, but we also hear from his four friends. Most of these soliloquies would be better shown than told, especially the monologue that reveals the actions behind the play’s title. No matter how much fun lighting and 80s music cues serve as transitions – and there are a lot of each – characters talking at the audience is no substitute for real action.

Squire has a terrific, multifaceted story on his hands: a group of kids in middle-of-nowhere Florida form their own Michael Jackson fan club, led by diehard fan Frenchy (JoJo Pender, herself still a teenager). Between dodging biannual riots and trying to steer clear of police, they gather in Obie’s living room to watch the Thriller video and sport sequined gloves on one hand, just like their hero. When Jack (Samuel Martin) moves to their home, the only white boy, he’s regarded with suspicion. But Obie’s intrigued by the nerdy stranger, who shares their love of MJ and whose dad decides to fund a mosaic mural of the King of Pop, as long as Jack can be in charge.

Both Obie and Jack (a nickname short for “Crackerjack”) are compelling characters – young men whose tentative friendship takes on a much darker tinge through the course of the play. Their interactions beautifully illustrate white privilege and cluelessness. Jack wants to touch Obie’s hair. He assumes Obie and Frenchy are related, possibly to Michael Jackson. He easily takes ownership of the fan club. Cringeworthy but real microaggressions that haven’t dissipated much since 1984. Despite his obvious faults, the most pervasive of which is echoing his racist father, Jack is presented as a real person, as is Obie, who discovers a new side of himself thanks to their friendship. The same can’t be said for Frenchy, who remains much the same throughout the play and has no real character arc. (It doesn’t help that Pender is supremely talented but would have benefited from more and better direction from Alexis J. Roston.)

Samuel Martin and Chris Taylor star as Jack and Obadiah in Defacing Michael Jackson, Flying ElephantChris Taylor, Samuel Martin, Eldridge Shannon III and JoJo Pender star in Defacing Michael Jackson Chris Taylor, JoJo Pender, Samuel Martin and Eldridge Shannon III star in Defacing Michael Jackson, FlyingSamuel Martin and Chris Taylor star in Defacing Michael Jackson, Flying Elephant Productions

The most problematic aspect of Squire’s script is the treatment of the character Yellow (Eldridge Shannon III, who also plays Yellow’s twin brother Red). Yellow has a pervasive stutter and may or may not be special needs. Squire never really decides, losing out on an opportunity to comment on the public education system that often misdiagnoses children of color as special needs and/or writes them off as “trouble.” Not only does Squire leave Yellow’s issues painfully unclear, he also often makes the character the butt of jokes and has other characters constantly describe him as “retarded” or even worse, “retard.” While these were both used in 1984 as a descriptor and insult, respectively, they’re now considered slurs. Using these words to illustrate and insult a character may be period-accurate, but in 2018 they’re just unnecessary. (Calling Yellow “stupid” or “dumb” would have worked just as well, taking nothing away from the story.)

The next statement is pure speculation, but Defacing Michael Jackson feels like a semi-autobiographical play, with narrator Obadiah as Squire’s stand-in. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing about one’s own experiences – most writers do at some point – but one must be careful to avoid indulgence without fully fleshing out the stories on the page and the stage. Memories can fog, personal experiences can get overly precious, and without solid feedback and editing, the writing itself can get messy. Defacing Michael Jackson could be so much more interesting and thoughtful than it actually is, if only Squire had taken a step back.

Rating: ★★½

Defacing Michael Jackson continues through August 12th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $40, and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

JoJo Pender, Chris Taylor and Eldridge Shannon III star in Defacing Michael Jackson

Photos by Emily Schwartz 




Samuel Martin (Jack), JoJo Pender (Frenchy), Eldridge Shannon III (Red, Yellow, Commish), Chris Taylor (Obadiah)

behind the scenes

Alexis J. Roston (director), Nicholas Schwartz (scenic design), Jessica Gowens (costume design), Becs Bartle (lighting design), Petter Wahlbäck (sound design), Jordan Affeldt (stage manager), Emily Schwartz (photos)

Chris Taylor stars as Obadiah in Defacing Michael Jackson by Aurin Squire, Flying Elephant ProdChris Taylor, Samuel Martin, Eldridge Shannon III and JoJo Pender star in Defacing Michael Jackson 2


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Category: 2018 Reviews, Flying Elephant Productions, Lauren Emily Whalen, Stage 773

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