R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - Hir with Malcolm Kenyatta | Theatre Philadelphia
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R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - Hir with Malcolm Kenyatta

Jun 21, 2017

At the end of Simpatico Theatre’s stunning production of Hir by Taylor Mac, my theatre date, Malcolm Kenyatta, and I head out into the warm summer Sunday afternoon in search of a place to go chat. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt and has a sign tucked under his arm that reads “Yes We Can” and has the word “Resist” written underneath in black marker. It catches my eye as we’re leaving the theater and I ask if Malcolm just carries protest signs with him wherever he goes.

Malcolm Kenyatta R. Eric Thomas
Malcolm and Eric, wearing t-shirts


I wouldn’t put it past him. He frequently appears on cable news to spread Democratic talking points and was a Hillary Clinton surrogate during the election. Prior to the show we chatted about the public’s reaction to his appearances on Fox News and how extreme internet commentary can be. As someone whose inbox is only open to compliments, I marvelled at his resilience. He seems built for this. It would make sense that he travelled the world with a sign and a chant ready. It turns out he’s just come from a march (some people brunch on Sunday; some march). Always one for a bon mot, he tells me “I believe that resistance is the most patriotic thing we can do.”


Hir, through this lens, is possibly the most patriotic thing on stage this year. It centers on a lower-middle class family, living in a crumbling, shoddily built house that sits on top of a landfill. The oldest son, Isaac (Kevin Meehan), has just been dishonorably discharged and tries to impose a militaristic order on the chaos of his birth home. Meanwhile his mother, Paige (Marcia Saunders), has taken to berating and emasculating her abusive husband (John Morrison), who has suffered a debilitating stroke. And youngest child, Max (Eppchez!), has started taking testosterone, using gender-neutral pronouns and dreams of joining a queer, anarchist cult. Resistance is in the walls of this house, in every word that they fire off at each other, in every pile of clothing that litters the floor, in their bodies themselves.


At intermission, Malcolm quips to me, “All of these people voted for Trump. Except Max. Max voted for Bernie.” I can’t argue with that. Taylor Mac paints a vivid picture of people who have no economic options and have bought into a system that chews them up and throws them away. Their transgressions are simultaneously resistant and desperate acts of self-preservation. While the drama is in some ways extreme, Malcolm sees corollaries to the conversations he had during the campaign with voters of all economic levels. “Politics is about real people,” he says. “And their real lives.”


Hir_Taylor Mac_Marcia Saunders
Marcia Saunders in Hir

In that sense, Hir is overtly political, too. From a descriptive blurb, one might surmise it’s an exploration of genderqueer life in America, or PTSD, or postmodern feminism, or veterans issues. And, in a sense, it is. But it’s mostly about four people. That’s the thing that that we keep coming back to after the play. Whether in the world of drama or the world of politics, to lose sight of the inherent humanity, the people at the center of any idea or issue, is to lose the power of transformation.


So, we’re leaving the theater, he’s got his sign tucked under his arm for the next march and the one after that. We’re trying to decide where to go. He suggests Bob & Barbara’s, the South Street dive bar. I’m taken aback. Malcolm is probably the most put-together person I know; he is always sharp and charming and impeccably dressed. Even his protest sign is fashionable. I would never have expected a dive bar to be his haunt of choice. But, it turns out, beneath the professional veneer and the on-camera aptitude is a real person, too. “I can eat crudite with the best of them,” he says. “But honestly, I’m so easy.”


We venture out in the sun-drenched street, en route to a dark, dingy dive bar where we can keep talking about real people. And maybe the ideas they represent, too.


Hir by Taylor Mac, directed Jarrod Markman, is produced by Simpatico Theatre. It opened on June 3 and runs through June 25. Find tickets and more information at simpaticotheatre.org

R. Eric Thomas is an award-winning playwright and humorist. His most recent play, Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and was named a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. He writes a daily humor column for ELLE.com in which he “reads” the news. In addition to ELLE.com and ELLE magazine, his writing has appeared in W, Man Repeller, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and more. rericthomas.com

R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - Hir