All families have some sort of degree of dysfunction to them, and most of the time, those families try to make the best of that dysfunction and still find happiness and peace. “While I Yet Live” showcases one particularly dysfunctional, and yet resilient, family, inspired by the real life experience of playwright Billy Porter.
“While I Yet Live” tells the story of a family living in Pittsburgh, where amongst a host strong women, Calvin (Larry Powell) a young gay man is trying to become the man he wants to be-which just so happens to be a gay man who loves musical theatre in a very Christian house. But that’s not the only issue brewing-everyone has secrets and is fighting their own battle-against cancer, disability, abuse, old feuds, or just trying to live their own life. The house is run by Maxine (S. Epatha Merkerson), but there are a plethora of women living their lives there as well, including Calvin’s younger sister, Tonya (Sheria Irving), grandmother Gertrude (Lillias White), great-aunt Delores (Elain Graham), friend of the family Eva (Sharon Washington) and Maxine’s husband Vernon (Kevyn Morrow). Each character is a realistic, vibrant character fully realized by each of the actors.
All of the performers are obviously skilled, deftly navigating the heavy dramatic moments of the show with the comedic moments that maintain the constant hope and love the family dynamic brings. Sheria Irving was a particular standout, transitioning smoothly between narrator, a young girl, and growing up into a young woman with ease and great specificity. S. Epatha Merkerson does a wondrous job of maintaining faith and poise in difficult situations, without ever forgetting about humor. Some particular escapades with a motorized scooter were particularly effective.
The script itself very neatly walks the line between intense drama and some more light-hearted moments. Especially evident is the great love and respect Porter has for every single character-none are neglected by the narrative and each have a chance to shine. The direction by Sheryl Kaller, is neatly done. While the action may be in one room of the house, there is always something happening in other rooms, so that the visual is always interesting and dynamic. The other design elements of the play like the wonderful set design by James Noone, coupled with costume design by Esosa, lighting design by Kevin Adams, and sound design by Leon Rothenberg.“While I Yet Live” deftly walks the line between heart wrenching drama and lovely moments between a close family. Playing for a limited six week engagement at The Duke on 42nd Street, don’t miss it.
Review By: Chrissy Cody
Photos By: James Leynse