Review: ‘NWC’

Bob Iger

"NWC's" heart and brain and sense of humor are all in the right place, with only an occasional note of preachiness creeping in to diminish the fun.

Did you hear the one about the black, Latino and Asian who walk into a theater and teach tolerance? It’s no joke. Since 2003, the creators/performers of the outrageously titled but earnestly well-meaning “N*gger Wetb*ck Ch*nk” have been marshaling sketch comedy and confessional direct address to defuse racial tension and raise consciousness at public and campus arenas across the country. “NWC’s” heart and brain and sense of humor are all in the right place, with only an occasional note of preachiness creeping in to diminish the fun.

College chums Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal and Miles Gregley nobly want us to question the words and assumptions that “label, disempower and separate” people. Their obviously close-knit friendship and impeccable comic timing honed over years of touring in and of themselves effectively convey the brotherhood message — so much so that the revue really doesn’t require the double-underlined highlighting of themes and lessons too often interjected (probably for the benefit of youth audiences) by co-helmers Liesel Reinhart and Steven T. Seagle.

After so many perfs, the ensemble shows no signs of staleness, boredom or fatigue. The perfect raconteur, Agustin commands aud empathy and a way with a punchline that veteran standups would envy. Axibal is the most readily likeable and physically expressive of the trio, though retreating too often to the same reedy Urkel voice for many of his characters. And Gregley is the total deal, with superb mimicry and movement along with acting chops; when someday the troupe disbands, as all troupes eventually must, his star quality is likely to take him all the way.

Thesps rhythmically chant the titular epithets first in place, then as they circle and menace each other, in an opening fugue that gets the hot-button words out of the way — they’re uttered only rarely thereafter. (With a champion 270 repetitions of the C-word, Axibal is immediately branded “overachiever.”) It’s also a genuine overture, its instantaneous switch from open hostility to smiles and high fives becoming a recurring transitional trope that disarms throughout.

Each proceeds to describe, “Chorus Line”-style, the childhood moment in which he realized his “otherness” status: Agustin through the discovery of immigration authorities; Gregley through an awkward encounter with “Huckleberry Finn.” Axibal’s poignant belief in his resemblance to Tom Cruise was dashed by a schoolmate’s blithe “You’re too Chinese” (he’s actually Filipino), and Kristie Roldan’s lights dim to a spot as he brings it home: “When you’re 8 or 9, you don’t know how to hate what you are. But you can definitely learn. That’s what school is for.”

Another trio of semi-dramatized monologues — the most fanciful, yet trenchant and entertaining part of the evening — explores the nature of developing identity. Moving from Southern California to Atlanta, Gregley had to decide how black to become (listening to language tapes, he can’t quite figure out how “Yo sup?” translates to “What are you doing today?”). Agustin tells of becoming “Ralph August” in the biz, but switching back to ethnic for a better chance at the American College Theater Fest with dramatic monologue “The One-Legged Border Jumper.”

Axibal’s tale of one exploratory night in a gay nightclub seems off-topic, but the point is spelled out: It’s strange to feel different.

Third section, with each discussing transforming into a different ethnicity, is the weakest. The poetry slam format works best when a performer is fully in the throes of rage or ecstasy, but a lull results when, as here, it’s applied coolly and intellectually. Things perk up as the final segment hilariously evokes, Groundlings style, a slew of icons and legends from a black Santa to a Latino Jesus, the latter permitting a sly — and thematically relevant — reference to Eminem’s classic rap refrain “I am whatever you say I am/If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?”

At that point, show steps back to question the hilarity: Why is the idea of a black Santa or Chinese Superman so ludicrous? The answer (all of us are victims of stereotypes and preconceptions) would seem self-evident, but once again, the fellows risk condescension by Explicitly Stating Quite Slowly their intended moral. For adult audiences allergic to being patronized, “NWC” should consider mounting a latenight version with added unspoken meanings.

Action is set against Seagle’s colorful checkerboard backing, an attractive metaphor for the world that “NWC” would like to build. At show’s best, with the guys making with the funny, you actually feel there’s a chance we could all get there.

NWC

New Ivar Theater, Los Angeles; 284 seats; $20 top

Production

A Speak Theater Arts presentation of a play in one act by Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal, Miles Gregley, Liesel Reinhart and Steven T. Seagle. Directed by Reinhart and Seagle.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Seagle; lighting, Kristie Roldan; stage manager, Adam Gonzales. Reviewed June 22, 2007. Opened June 7. Runs through July 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

With: Rafael Agustin, Allan Axibal and Miles Gregley.
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