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Tuesday, July 23, 6 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 8:15 p.m.
They say: “Chicagoland, 1979: In this too-good-to-be-true story of one boy’s life in an interracial family, James Anthony Zoccoli recalls growing up as a half-Italian, half-Polish kid who wants to be Black when his White mom marries an African-American man. Hilarity ensues!”
Alexis’ Take: Wiggerlover begins with James Anthony Zoccoli auditioning for a small part as a belligerent racist. Indeed, on IMDB, he is listed as “W. Virginia Heckler” in the Dennis Quaid sports movie The Express, about college football great Ernie Davis, first black Heisman Trophy winner.
We hear a voice overhead, of the director telling him how to inflect. Then, like something out of Louie, Zoccoli pivots forward with an arm swing, like he’s about to doh-si-doh someone in square dancing, and yells with a twang, “Nigger lover!”
He does this several times. After each try, he steps back with an endearing, baffled shrug and a look of, “Did I get it this time?”
I describe this scene because it’s a shocking, smart and funny, and an apt setup for the complex, challenging coming-of-age story that follows. In 1979, when Zoccoli’s white mom wed the black man she loved, whose name was Orlandus Bell, interracial marriage had only been legal in the United States for 12 years. So young “Jimmy” certainly heard that slur enough times in real life—including from his biological father—to know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such hate, and to make fun of it.
Wiggerlover is part social commentary, part sitcom, part sketch comedy.
What works: Pop-culture references galore (Magic vs. Byrd, Apollo Creed vs. Rocky, etc.). Rich, odd little details about family, like how his grandmother could “cure anything with vitamins and took a very long time to get ready to go shopping,” or how his stepdad looked like Artis Gilmore of the Chicago Bulls and loved peach juice.
This show does not suffer for the fact that it’s set during the nostalgic, infectious musical era of 1979 to around 1989. Joined by a DJ onstage, Zoccoli does the Sprinkler to “Ring My Bell” and recites every word to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” And he recounts his block in Evanston, Ill. in the early ’80s as a kind of racially harmonious Utopia—-while managing to throw a zinger at Northwestern alum Charlton Heston’s expense.
What doesn’t work as well: Attempts at direct political commentary, which, while well intentioned, take us out of the story itself and feel a bit forced—-like when he notes how it’s ironic that his stepdad was the ever-present stern but loving disciplinarian, defying the stereotype of the absent black father much like Bill Cosby would on network television later that decade. Well, yes. But this is already evident in the stories themselves.
I suspect that Zoccoli has inserted these driving instructions, as it were, simply because talking about race outside the realm of carefully revised talking points is uncomfortable and difficult as hell. It’s hard to fault him for overexplaining, when the rest of the piece is so clearly written from the heart. Without a doubt, Zoccoli’s stepdad was integral in shaping him into someone sensitive enough to try and search for ways to meld a love of black culture with undeniable white privilege… and then to write an entire one-man show about it.
Bottom line, Zoccoli is a natural storyteller, and I imagine that since I attended, the show has already evolved, and warmed, and allowed other flavors to sink into the mix. I hope so.
See it if: You, too, dislike the term “Caucasian” because it was invented by an 18th century German who thought race could be determined by skull size.
Skip it if: You like hockey and mullets.