In his directorial debut, playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm takes on cultural appropriation in the Studio Theatre world premiere production “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle,” which opened on April 3 and continues through April 28.
The comedy follows a Bieber-esque pop star from Toronto as he tries to shed his squeaky-clean image by hiring up-and-coming Chicago rap duo Petty Young Goons to school him in the history, culture and vernacular of hip-hop with the world looking on via reality TV. Drawing inspiration from Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and the voyeurism of MTV’s “The Real World,” Chisholm ruminates on the power of transformation and narrative ownership as his characters take turns trying to cash in on the other’s cultural currency, whether it be street cred, public visibility, or crossover potential.
“Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm is the real, real deal. His satire is barbed – funny and unforgettable,” said Studio Artistic Director David Muse. “P.Y.G. looks at identity and commodification through a reality TV makeover show. The result is scathing, hilarious, provocative in all the best ways, and in the end, pretty damn moving.”
Chisholm employs many familiar tropes of the genre: cutaway confessionals, elaborate montages, private conversations picked up by ever-present microphones. He even includes theme music (with nods to “The Real World” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) and commercial breaks, advertising faux products that combat, or comment on, persistent micro-aggressions.
Chisholm, an accomplished playwright with awards that include the 2018 Smith Prize for Political Theater, two 2016 National Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival awards, the Rosa Parks Playwriting Award and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, completed Juilliard’s playwriting program and has an MFA from The Catholic University of America.
The St. Louis native now living in New York, considers the District both as a second home and the city that made him a playwright. He studied theater at Catholic University and maintains close relationships with DC theaters like Studio and Mosaic. Interestingly, his legacy in DC also lives on through graphic design; he designed Mayor Muriel Bowser’s election logo, and later created the city government’s visual style guide and the “We are DC” logo.
He spoke with The Washington Informer about his new production.
Washington Informer: Satire is a tough genre and yet you seem to be quite comfortable employing it as the basis of your new production. Why did you choose it and what from your past made this something that resonated with you and helped you achieve success?
Chisholm: My philosophy is ‘life is funny … until it’s not.’ And I employ this philosophy in my writing. I didn’t necessarily choose satire, but I tend to approach most topics with humor. I think comedy can be a powerful tool in theatre and change.
WI: Cultural and racial appropriation is a fascinating intersection particularly in light of the current political and social atmosphere of America. What challenges did you face in bringing these two segments together and what were your goals?
Chisholm: I think the line between culture and race is murky and I engage with that distinction in the play. My goal was to examine this moment in our political and social history in a way that felt honest and fair. Wrestling with some of the bigger issues surrounding race can be overwhelming. So I tried to embody the many sides of the arguments in character. It’s easier to have compassion and understanding when it’s boiled down to a human level.
WI: Working with reality TV as a foundation of your production is quite interesting to me, maybe because I am not a fan of this recent phenomenon that has become extremely popular with millennials. Is the new employ of reality TV a fad, in your view, or something that’s long-lasting and why?
Chisholm: I’m actually a big fan of reality TV. It’s one my many guilty pleasures. The thing I find most interesting is the medium’s ability to shape reality. I think there is something artful about being able to carefully curate and shape narrative. The play explores who gets to create and control your narrative and how do you take control of people’s perception of you.
WI: As a student of theater (MFA), how has your education provided you a keener insight as to the development of this, and other, staged productions?
Chisholm: My education in theatre, at Catholic University of America and Juilliard, have taught me about the importance of collaboration. In a theatrical production everyone has their own jobs, which come with a specific set of experiences and skill sets. In education you learn how to work with others to achieve a common goal, and it taught me how to foster an environment for everyone to do their best work. This skill has been helpful as I taken on the director/playwright role.
WI: When the audience leaves the theater what do you hope they’ll take away with them?
Chisholm: I want them to think and to consider their reality and their perception of it.
Editor’s Note: Tickets for the play which runs through April 28 can be purchased, discounted by 20 percent for our Washington Informer readers. Simply use promo code INFORMER at checkout or by calling Studio Theatre’s Box Office, 202-332-3300.