Review: ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle’ at Studio Theatre

Don’t be put off by the deliberately opaque, long title of the current world premiere at Studio Theatre’s experimental space. P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle is a very slick, intelligent, and funny look at social issues that divide African-Americans and Caucasians, primarily in the United States but with reference to the rest of the world as well.

Seth Hill, Simon Kiser, and Gary L. Perkins III in 'P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.' Photo: C. Stanley Photography.
Seth Hill, Simon Kiser, and Gary L. Perkins III in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Written and directed by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, the play’s primary characters are Alexand Da Great (Gary L. Perkins III), Blacky Blackerson (Seth Hill), and Dorian Belle (Simon Kiser). Dorian is a Justin Bieber-type pop singer from Canada, a whiter-than-white singer who appeals to a young crowd.

In order to increase his appeal to more hip audiences, Dorian hires two recognized rappers from Chicago – the Petty Young Goons or P.Y.G. – to educate him in the history and culture of hip-hop, thus giving him more street cred and crossover potential. In the process, the three entertainers continually get embroiled in discussions about race.

Dorian thinks that Blacky brings up the subject of slavery far too often, for instance, and that continually referencing it must make Blacky feel inferior. Blacky is shocked that Dorian doesn’t understand how the issue of slavery is woven through Blacky’s life. Blacky and Alexand get involved in a discussion of the “n-word.” They use it freely when they are together without Dorian, but they decide not to use it when Dorian is around because they are afraid that if Dorian hears the word too much, he might try to use it too.

Alexand and Blacky are two very different types. Alexand is the more serious, more cerebral of the two. At one point he describes a dream he had of being in a forest of birch trees – white with black eyes. Later, in Canada, he wakes up in a birch forest thinking he is in the middle of that dream. Blacky is not as deep. As long as the money is pouring in from Dorian and there is plenty of weed, he’s happy. But even he has his thoughtful moments, for instance thinking about how sad it is that some people from the ‘hood will never know life’s significant pleasures – like skiing and arugula.

All three actors are excellent singers and dancers and even at the beginning of the show, when Dorian doesn’t have a clue about how to move onstage, he can keep up enough to make it clear he will be able to perform eventually. There is a long number in the middle of the play when Alexand and Blacky act out the history of hip-hop and break, showing their evolution on a map, from New York across America to California, then to Latin America, Europe, and Africa. It’s a breathtaking routine, where the two actors dance side by side, proving that Perkins and Hill are extraordinary dancers.

Scenic Designer Richard Ouellette creates a stage on two risers facing the audience. This area is first a recording studio, complete with plenty of neon lights, a sofa, three directors’ chairs, and a wall of gold records for the opening scene, where Blacky, Alexand, and Dorian get to know each other.

The walls of that studio serve as screens for projections, designed by Kelly Colburn. Since reality TV is the atmosphere Dorian, Alexand, and Blacky breathe, TV cameras and green screens are everywhere. Projections announce where Dorian, Alexand, and Blacky are. After first showing Dorian in performance, the screens move to Canada to show snow-covered mountains behind Dorian and Blacky as they ride a ski lift together. Later, the screens reflect American national discontent, a quick flash of President Trump screaming, and riots.

Gary L. Perkins III, Simon Kiser, and Seth Hill in 'P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.' Photo: C. Stanley Photography.
Gary L. Perkins III, Simon Kiser, and Seth Hill in ‘P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.’ Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Costume Designer Danielle Preston at first outfits Blacky and Alexand in jeans, polyester jackets, and sneakers. Blacky wears his significant dreadlocks in a twist on top of his head. Preston puts both men in purple suits, black patent leather shoes without socks, and significant bling for the final scene where P.Y.G. performs at Flex Fest 2019.

Lighting Director Jesse Belsky works hand-in-glove with writer/director Chisholm, dividing the play into chunks of dialogue, dance, and interview sections, divided by rapid blackouts. Sound Designer and Composer Gabriel Clausen is as responsible as Chisholm is for the sense that this is a play about three men who are nowhere trying to get somewhere fast, via soundtrack. Movement Coach Tony Thomas takes Kiser’s, Perkins’ and Hill’s innate abilities and tunes them up to the ultimate level.

The real delight at the center of P.Y.G. is that in it, although it is said to be built on the notion of Shaw’s play Pygmalion and the makeover craze, it’s clear that there are some limits to how far people can be made over.

Chisholm has said that white people often come up to him at talk-backs after his shows to ask what they can do to help race relations. That’s what inspired him to write this play. More plays like P.Y.G. might be a start. Also helpful would be more roles for talented young actors like Perkins and Hill.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, without intermission.

PYG Or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle plays through April 28, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. Through April 28. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or go online.