Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


William Missouri Downs’s Forgiving John Lennon is designed to provoke a reaction from its audience. There’s no one desired effect, the play is too diverse and open-ended for that, but that the viewer will react — strongly — is almost certain. In its world-premiere production, the Detroit Repertory Theatre and director Harry Wetzel use twisted comedy as an entry point into a minefield of well-intentioned prejudice and misguided political correctness, blurring perceptions of acceptable and taboo.

The plot is centered around Asma (Yolanda Jack), a Muslim poet invited from Somalia to deliver readings and speeches at a few New England colleges. In the home of her eager hosts, professors Joseph and Katie (Benjamin J. Williams and Leah Smith), wide-eyed Asma’s awkwardly pointed comments (emerging from literal interpretations of English phrases and an outsider’s perfectly logical deductive reasoning) are effusively smoothed over and preemptively forgiven by this almost aggressively tolerant couple. The foreigner iteration of “kids say the darndest things” is an old device, but it works here in light of Asma’s enormous insight and Jack’s playful reactions as she politely endures Katie and Joseph’s meager hospitality and quietly enjoys pointing out their ideological inconsistencies and being smarter than they give her credit for. She isn’t Borat by a long shot (although these scenarios are certainly funny); her questions originate from fearless inquisitiveness rather than ignorance.

As the trio kills time waiting for the delivery man (Samer Ajluni) to arrive with their Chinese food, Asma’s steadfast frankness increasingly grates against the hyperconscious political correctness of Joseph, a black American, and Katie, a white emigrant from England. Both are quick to defend (and deftly spin) their culture, work, interracial/international/interfaith marriage, and decision to remain childless, and both are open to other cultures exactly as far as they conform to the prevailing American majority’s common perception of them. Their true motives for inviting Asma to speak are rooted in a regrettable public incident and the school’s collective reactionary one-upsmanship of inclusion, yet when the guest of honor behaves like a person with complex convictions instead of a mouthpiece reinforcing the West’s perception of Islam, and especially when she challenges them to back up their assertions with actions, their cracks begin to show. Williams brings an easy nerdiness to Joseph, who believes his penchant for making inflammatory remarks is cutting-edge and — by virtue of being purely cerebral — safe. As the demonstrably self-censoring Katie, Smith reveals much in her many apologies for Joseph; together, their subtle maneuvering in service of being the most tolerant and open turns them nearly grotesque. Further heightening the skewed reality of the production, Wetzel imbues much of this conversational play with a sitcom-like absurdity that effectively masks its rising stakes and throws the characters’ differences into digestible relief.

Still, there’s no mistaking this challenging show for a straightforward comedy; from the outset, Burr Huntington’s ferociously dissonant music lets on that something is amiss. In his set design, Wetzel’s take on a professor’s house gives the characters ample opportunities to move around and keep the staging fresh, and costumes by Judy Dery are appropriately representative, hijab and ugly sweater alike.

The whole of Forgiving John Lennon presents such a tangle of opinions on the thorny subjects of cultural tolerance and criticism, it’s poised to knock the viewer off of a comfortable standpoint and into at least temporary flux. The characters’ interactions are easily played for laughs because American attitudes toward inclusiveness and tolerance tend to struggle with this kind of discourse, and Downs uses the ensuing comic discomfort to his full advantage as the conflict develops and deepens over the course of its two acts. This is a necessarily confrontational production of an extremely intelligent and dark play, one that stares into a divide not as neatly bridged as we might like to believe.


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