In ‘Honky,’ a play that plays with the language of racism

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, tonight, as part of the Friday night arts lineup, PBS and OnStage in America present a stage comedy about racism that throws political correctness out the window.

Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with the play's author, Greg Kalleres.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tonight on PBS, a performance that takes a look at racism through the lens of marketing and commercialism.

"Honky" is a satirical comedy about five people attempting to navigate the dicey waters of race, rhetoric and basketball shoes. A performance of the play was taped at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.

And the author, Greg Kalleres, joins me know.

So, thank you for joining me.

First of all, why this play?

GREG KALLERES, Playwright, "Honky": Well, I worked in advertising. I kind of stumbled into advertising.

I think I was shocked mainly by how white the industry was in general, and because so much of the stuff that we're marketing is to non-white demographics, it was interesting to see how many people were forced to speak comfortably about something that they were clearly not comfortable.

ACTOR: Would you wear these?

ACTOR: Sure.

ACTOR: I mean, what do you mean?

ACTOR: See, I think it looks like a circus shoe.

ACTOR: You don't like it.

ACTOR: I can't think of a pair of pants that would go with them.

GREG KALLERES: For me, like, the language is the most important thing, so hearing people tiptoe around words and the things they can say and can't say and should and shouldn't say when that guy is in the room is fascinating.

ACTOR: For the last 15 years, Sky has been selling to your people and only your people.


ACTOR: Is it cool if I talk like this? I'm not making you uncomfortable. My people, your people. I grew up in Chicago. The point is, these are facts.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There is a black man struggling with the tension of selling basketball shoes to young urban demographics. There's a white guy who has problems with the words that he used and what sort of consequences they could have had.

There's so many people dealing with guilt of their racial identity in America today on so many different levels.

GREG KALLERES: These two characters specifically, Thomas is the black shoe designer. And he grew up in a really rich white neighborhood. And I think he has a lot of conflict around that, because there is so much around the idea of being black enough.

He designs shoes for a shoe company that is primarily targeting young black males, and he's very proud of that. But he also has this other side of him that he feels is white.

ACTOR: I knew it would take a toll. Growing up around all those rich white people takes a toll. It takes a toll.


ACTOR: I knew, eventually, I would be getting bent over by Clay Aiken, Coldplay, "Downton Abbey."


ACTOR: I would wake up in a cold sweat needing to buy some $600 Nottingham wall sconce from Pottery Barn.

ACTRESS: You said that sconce gave your place a nice classic feel.

ACTOR: You're damn right it's a nice classic feel. And it's an elegant way to disguise the lack of furniture in that part of the room, but you're missing the point.


ACTRESS: And that is?

ACTOR: This is not what black people talk about.

GREG KALLERES: And there's Peter, who is the copywriter. And this is I guess what I relate to the most, because I was this copywriter writing for brands that were targeting urban demographics.

And when you're targeting a certain demographic and you're not that demographic, I thought that was an interesting in for the play.

ACTRESS: Why don't you tell me why you came to see me today?

ACTOR: A kid was murdered for a pair of shoes, and I think it's because of the commercial I wrote.

ACTRESS: Sky shoes, you wrote that ad? S'up now?
ACTOR: Not too much. How are you?


HARI SREENIVASAN: There's also this idea that there is no more derogatory a term for white people than racist. It just triggers all kinds of responses.

GREG KALLERES: I couldn't think of a word that insults white people the way that the N-word or other slurs insult people of color. And there really isn't one, which is why the play is called "Honky," because it's such a benign, comical term.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If that's the worst you can do.

GREG KALLERES: If that's the worst you can do, is honky. I mean, I haven't heard that used with sincerity since, like, a Clint Eastwood-Dirty Harry movie, I think.

The idea of being a racist, I think, for white people is about the closest you get to making them scared, or offended, or upset.

ACTOR: I run an urban shoe company.

ACTOR: Urban?

ACTOR: It's a euphemism for African-American. The point is, I spend a lot of times with African-Americans. I know the African-American culture and sell to the African-American a product.

ACTOR: You don't have to say African-American every time, Mr. Tallison. You can simply use…

ACTOR: Urban.

ACTOR: I was going to say a pronoun.


ACTOR: I sell basketball shoes to them.

ACTOR: Well, now the pronoun is offensive.


ACTOR: My overall point is, I don't think I'm a racist.

ACTOR: Of course you don't. That's precisely why you are one. Do you understand?


GREG KALLERES: They will often lose sleep over the fact that, I'm not racist. I didn't say anything racist. Did I say something racist? No, no, no. I'm not racist. I said — what I said was — and there's a lot of back-stepping, and digging more graves for themselves as they continue to constantly, you know, obviously attempt, well-meaningly, to say the right thing, and often failing.

I'm getting married soon.

ACTRESS: Congratulations.

ACTOR: Thank you. She's very white.


ACTOR: I don't know why I just said that. I don't mean white as in the distinction between the colors white and black. I just mean she's very, you know, white.


ACTOR: This is sounding bad. The truth is, I'm totally colorblind.


ACTOR: And I don't mean that figuratively either. I mean I don't see color. You should see my socks, totally integrated.


GREG KALLERES: I think the humor in the play comes from the attempt to never be called one, and all the efforts we make for people never to say, you're a racist, or think you're a racist.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of other threads that you pull on in this is that — the commercialization of racial identity in America. You use a product, a basketball shoe specifically. There is this tension on what keeps something real, what makes something sold out, when does that crossover happen.

GREG KALLERES: Cultural appropriation has been going on forever.

It's part of what America is about. Right?

GREG KALLERES: Absolutely.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We take everything from everyone and make something new out of it.

GREG KALLERES: Yes, because it's authentic. And then we sort of de-authenticate it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Homogenize it.

GREG KALLERES: Exactly, and it becomes a cliche.

ACTOR: They're mine?

ACTOR: Yours? Didn't you hear what I just said?

ACTOR: Give them to me.

ACTOR: No, no, no, no. This is good. Let's think about this. What is yours? What does the black man, Thomas Hodge, have when all the dust is settled? Your history? Culture? No. Bought and sold years ago, just like ours.

GREG KALLERES: It's something to think about when you watch commercials or to watch anything. How — where do they come from? Where do these ideas come from?

HARI SREENIVASAN: But you made the awkward very digestible.

GREG KALLERES: Hopefully. At least it's somewhat funny.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Greg Kalleres, thanks so much for joining us.

GREG KALLERES: Hey, thank you so much. This was great.

HARI SREENIVASAN: "Honky" is a project of OnStage in America, and airs tonight on most PBS stations.