At the beginning of Miami New Drama’s mostly solid world premiere production of Aurin Squire’s touching and funny memory play, “Defacing Michael Jackson,” the narrator enthusiastically spreads his arms wide. He looks as though he is about to literally embrace his past.
This is an understandable gesture. After all, the character, Obadiah (Xavier Edward King), experienced a mostly memorable year of his childhood in 1984. Indeed, it was an innocent time that featured romance, friendships, video games, and music by his hero, Michael Jackson.
But 1984 was hardly all rosy for Obadiah. And, so, credit Squire for writing a balanced play, featuring highlights and lowlights during mainly one year of what is essentially the playwright’s youth.
The world premiere production of “Defacing Michael Jackson,” which takes place in Opa-locka, runs through Sunday, April 2 in Miami New Drama’s resident playing space, Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre.
The play is not specifically about Michael Jackson, he does not appear as a character, and we do not hear his music. However, the piece focuses on the influence that he had on a group of fictional teens.
“Defacing Michael Jackson” has room to grow in terms of character development. Perhaps the characters could change over the course of several years. Also, it would be useful to know why the teens are so enamored with Jackson as that question is never really answered.
Nonetheless, Squire’s play is promising.
“Defacing Michael Jackson” marks Squire’s fourth collaboration with Miami New Drama. Previously, they partnered for the world premiere productions of “Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy” in 2019, “Seven Deadly Sins” in 2020, and “A Wonderful World” in 2022. The latter is Broadway-bound.
In “Defacing Michael Jackson,” as racial tensions rise, particularly in South Florida, the characters lose their innocence and learn truths about themselves and the world. For instance, they discover that Jackson, their hero, is human after all, and therefore not immune to misfortune.
Despite its short, intermission-less roughly 90 minutes, “Defacing Michael Jackson” is a layered play. Specifically, it touches on themes such as identity, acceptance, rejection, prejudice, privilege, memory, friendship, sexual awakening, hero worship, racism, colorism, gentrification, and the loss of innocence.
While this taut play covers a lot of ground, it never seems overstuffed. In fact, it is a focused tale that takes place mainly during the year 1984, but also in 2009. To Squire’s credit, he makes us identify with people whom we might not ordinarily associate with. And isn’t that one of live theater’s objectives?
When the play opens, we sense that several of the characters have been together for numerous years. What unites them is not only a shared love for Michael Jackson (they are members of a Jackson fan club), but the fact that each of them is dealing with one or more issues. For instance, one character is mentally challenged and stutters, while another’s parents are AWOL.
The play’s inciting incident occurs after an outsider, a white boy named Wes, moves into the Black characters’ African American neighborhood in Opa-locka, and joins their club. Suddenly, the boy, nicknamed “Jack” and later “Cracker Jack,” seems to be taking over the club too quickly. Of all the characters, a girl named Frenchy, the fan club’s president, is the most perturbed about Jack.
“So, this white boy comes in and starts messing things up,” Frenchy tells the audience. “First day he takes my seat in Obie’s living room for (the music video of) ‘Thriller.’ I mean, this is Frenchy Clark’s seat. Ain’t nooo-body supposed to sit in that seat. He just comes in like he’s God/king all-mighty. And nobody stops him. Not even Obie. See, folks, this is how it starts. This is how white people take over. My momma told me all about it. First, it’s your seat, then it’s the whole neighborhood. They’re all sitting in there, laughing and jumping like it’s the first time they’ve seen it (the music video of ‘Thriller’). Trying to impress Cracker Jack. Like he’s special. But what about Frenchy Carter? I’m the special one. Shoo, they make me sick.”
Frenchy is a difficult character to like; she's self-consumed and overtly prejudiced.
However, you sense that director Shaun Patrick Tubbs instructed Sydney Presendieu, who portrays Frenchy, not to play her as an unbearable bitch. Tubbs, who directs the production with sensitivity and detail, helps Presendieu.
While Presendieu’s Frenchy is commanding and self-centered, she is not obnoxious and loud. And the performer imbues Frenchy with ambition and dreaminess, especially when she thinks about marrying Jackson.
Frenchy claims to love Jackson the most out of the group, but Jack argues that he loves the “King of Pop” as much as Frenchy.
Unlike Frenchy, Squire has not endowed Jack with undesirable traits. On the contrary, he is friendly and eager to fit in with the group. These are traits with which actor Joshua Hernandez convincingly imbues the character.
With long, wavy dark hair and wide brown eyes, Hernandez plays Jack sympathetically; at first as a shy, insecure youth, and later as an enthusiastic, sincere young man. Hernandez makes the transition seamless.
Meanwhile, King as Obadiah narrates the play as an adult in 2009 and is a teenage character in 1984. King infuses Obadiah with charisma, intelligence, and a mild-mannered charm that wins us over.
However, toward the end of the play, Obadiah should sound at least somewhat solemn. After all, he talks to us about changes for the worst that occurred in the neighborhood. Toward the end of the play, King sounds too indifferent as Obadiah tells us about the changes.
One of the changes involves a character named only “Red.”
“Red became a professional criminal known for pistol-whipping and knifing his victims,” Obadiah tells us. “He was the meanest man in town until the police shot him dead for trying to rob a McDonald’s.”
Dylan Rogers plays not only Red, but his mentally-challenged twin, Yellow. In addition, Rogers briefly plays a city commissioner.
To his credit, Rogers portrays the stuttering Yellow with sensitivity, avoiding stereotypes and exaggerations.
Behind the scenes, scenic designer Frank J. Oliva has created a spacious, sturdy-looking, yet unspecific set. It forces us to use our imagination, something live theater often does. Besides, the set’s minimalism allows us to focus on the action and the characters.
Meanwhile, lighting designer Nicole Lang focuses the actors, and deftly differentiates between realism and non-realism. More specifically, she bathes the stage with less intense lighting during moments of memory and with brighter, realistic lighting when the play takes place in 1984.
Sound designer Quentin Chiappetta also plays a significant role in the production. Namely, he created realistic sound effects that aid in our imagination. Also, thanks in part to this artist’s work, we can not only hear but understand the actors, who wear costume designer Grier Coleman’s character-defining clothes. In addition, music that sounds similar to Jackson’s music helps to create an atmosphere of memory and mystery.
Intimacy choreographer Nicole Perry helps create moments of intimacy that look real. And fight choreographer Lee Soroko is responsible for the physical conflict that is believable while keeping the actors safe.
If you want to learn more about Michael Jackson, the artist, or hear his music, a better bet may “MJ the Musical” on Broadway. Yet, while the “King of Pop” is not physically present in “Defacing Michael Jackson,” rest assured his spirit is.
Miami New Drama’s production of “Defacing Michael Jackson” runs through Sunday, April 2 at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Show times are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Ticket prices range from $46.50 to $76.50, including a service fee. For more information, call (305) 674-1040 or go to www.miaminewdrama.org.