We gave it a C+
If plays were judged on emotion and intent alone, Billy Porter’s While I Yet Live would be a smash hit. The Tony-winning actor-singer?who’s still knocking ’em dead as Lola, the drag queen with the most fabulous footwear on Broadway, in Kinky Boots—opens his heart for this semiautobiographical drama. And he pours it all out on stage at Off Broadway’s Duke on 42nd Street: a stepfather’s sexual abuse; his mother’s degenerating cerebral palsy-like illness; and her fierce devotion to her faith, inextricably entwined with her very slow struggle to understand and accept that her son is gay and ”God made [him] this way.”
He pours out all that and more in the play, which takes its title from a gospel song (”Give me my flowers while I yet live…I’d rather have just one tulip right now than a truckload of roses when I’m dead”). There are Bible verses, dead relatives, Thanksgiving dinners; I’d say everything but the kitchen sink but that’s there as well. Is While I Yet Live a dysfunctional family drama? A coming-of-age tale? A confessional? D: all of the above.
Porter may have penned the play, but he—or rather his on-stage alter ego, here named Calvin (Larry Powell)—is hardly the star. The spotlight, unequivocally, belongs to Calvin’s mother, Maxine. It’s one h-e-l-l—Maxine frowns on bad language—of a part. Luckily, it’s gone to S. Epatha Merkerson, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress best known for her 17 seasons on Law & Order. Her physical transformation is astonishing—hands curled and clenched, feet cruelly and awkwardly angled in, face struggling to mask bodily pain and spiritual struggle.
You can’t help but wish for more stage time for Merkerson, for a deeper exploration of her strained relationship with her son and a sharper look at the caregiver-patient connection between her and her daughter (the very appealing Sheria Irving). But there are so many distractions: Maxine’s mother (Lillias White, whose silver-streaked wig can’t hide the fact that she’s just a couple years older than Merkerson); her crotchety aunt (Elain Graham); her best friend/conscience (Sharon Washington); and her no-good husband (Kevyn Morrow).
And did we mention all the ghosts floating around? Not to speak ill of the undead, but when they start sharing knowledge with living characters—who then use that knowledge as ammunition in future scenes—that’s a dramaturgical infraction, plain and simple. Porter’s intentions may be beyond reproach; the fault is merely in his execution. C+