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In an early episode of Family Guy, Cleveland Brown remarks of a fictional, civil-rights themed board game that “You don’t win. You just do a little better each time.” The line is funny because it’s so particular and so true—a complete resolution of America’s race issues is highly unlikely. Writer/director Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm delves into that emotional space for a rewarding two hours with P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle, his Pygmalion-inspired take on race relations, currently making its world premiere at Studio Theatre.
The small ensemble’s solid acting helps the message take center stage in this production—and there’s a lot of message. P.Y.G. is a sprightly thing, flitting with abandon from one trope of the modern civil rights discourse to the next. Chisholm has cleverly used Shaw’s Pygmalion, one of the most adapted stories in the Western canon, to keep the story grounded and familiar. In this take, a Bieberesque white Canadian pop star Dorian Belle (Simon Kiser) has agreed to appear on a reality show with hip-hop artists Petty Young Goons, who will help him “learn to be black.” Yes, that line is even harder to hear on stage than it is to read.
The concept of Bieber on a Real World-esque reality show feels surprisingly dated for a brand new show, but that may be a symptom of how quickly things seem to move in the modern era. The show is still fine-tuned to be fresh and up to date—Chisholm even managed to slip in a timely reference to the Mueller report summary—but it still contains some sad proof of how quickly life can change. An in-universe commercial for a summer music festival lists Xxxtentacion and Nipsey Hussle among its headliners. Both artists were murdered in the short time since the play was written.
Pygmalion is, at its core, a story about changing characters, and the three leads do indeed evolve a lot over the course of P.Y.G. Seth Hill and Gary L. Perkins III especially get to show off their acting range as their characters, Blacky Blackerson and Alexand Da Great, drop their TV-crafted personas and develop a real relationship with Dorian. Unlike Pygmalion, this play lacks a clear villain, and Chisholm deliberately avoids ending it on a cathartic note. More than 500 years of racial conflict won’t be fixed in a two hour play, after all. But as a platform for amplifying and explaining the current discourse on the subject, P.Y.G. is an entertaining success.
To April 28 at 1501 14th St. NW. $20–$69. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org.