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'Clay' appeals to the ears and gut, but not the head

A white teen enters the world of hip-hop fame. Original material? No. Emotional impact? Big.

September 21, 2007|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

A sullen, misunderstood white kid turns to hip-hop to escape his broken family and, in the process, becomes a hugely successful recording artist. The life of rap star Eminem is well known by now, but this description also forms the basis of "Clay," a solo show by the young actor Matt Sax that opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

Clearly indebted to Eminem's life and career, "Clay" doesn't exactly raise the theatrical roof in terms of originality. The show follows an awkward Jewish teenager named Clifford whose parents are going through a messy divorce. Emotionally traumatized, the kid befriends an African American hip-hop artist named Sir John, who initiates him into the world of rap music and becomes a mentor figure. Sax plays all of these characters and more, shifting dexterously between rap numbers and spoken monologues. His onstage presence -- a mix of cocksure poise and boyish charm -- feels natural, and this alone makes it easy to forgive some of his shortcomings as a playwright of ideas.

"Clay," which premiered to critical acclaim last year in Chicago, ambitiously interpolates pieces of Shakespeare into its already complicated text. Sir John, played by Sax as a hooded, wisdom-spouting alternative parent-figure, is modeled after Sir John Falstaff, the portly character of "Henry IV, Parts I and II" who inducts the young Prince Hal into a world of drunken revelry. Shakespeare positioned Falstaff as a working-class counterpoint to Prince Hal's royal destiny. The Sir John of "Clay" provides a similar source of street cred, hunkered down in a rough part of Brooklyn and calling out bull when he sees it. "It only come out truthful if it come from a truthful place," he instructs young Clifford.

The show also quotes obliquely from "Hamlet," most notably when Clifford's father hastily remarries following the untimely death of his wife. There's even an Oedipal twist to Clifford's relationship with his new stepmother. Ultimately (and without giving too much away), there's a bloody showdown between Clifford, who has become a star and taken the stage name "Clay," and his resentful father.

As impressive as these literary homages are, "Clay" contents itself to stand on the shoulders of its antecedents instead of fully integrating them into the story. Few could ever describe "Henry IV" or "Hamlet" as crowd pleasers. (Prince Hal cruelly rejects Falstaff; Hamlet dies.) And yet "Clay" is unequivocally upbeat. We are meant to cheer the protagonist as he conquers his demons and realizes his full potential. Sax might have done better to riff on one of the Bard's comedies (maybe "Twelfth Night"), which would give him the lightness and uplift he seeks.

As hip-hop culture is obsessed with authenticity, it's ironic that this theatrical vehicle often feels more than a little synthetic. Clearly, this is hip-hop intended for audiences that don't necessarily like or listen to hip-hop. More than once, a character reassures us "don't worry" if we don't understand all the words. In a sense, what we experience during "Clay" isn't rap music at all but a simulacrum designed for maximum crossover appeal. Even the graffiti that adorns the stage looks less spray-painted than carefully art-directed.

More problematic is the show's limited engagement with race and class as thematic issues, especially since few pop culture phenomena carry as much baggage as the white rapper. Here, hip-hop is presented almost exclusively as an art form that white suburban kids can use to work out their existential issues. As the only black character, Sir John is little more than a sidekick meant to keep the white protagonist real, a rather indefensible relegation, considering the origins of the musical genre.

The Caucasian protagonist of "Clay" qualifies as the latest variation on what Norman Mailer once termed the "white Negro." (Mailer was referring mostly to white jazz musicians, but today that label would include Eminem as well as Kevin Federline.)

"Clay" doesn't situate itself in any larger cultural context, and the play glosses over why its protagonist is attracted to hip-hop in the first place. This lack of self-interrogation by Sax certainly counts as a huge missed opportunity.

In the end, none of this seriously diminishes the emotional impact of "Clay." Theater shouldn't be a sociological dissertation after all, and Sax knows this. His inventive lyrics and economically graceful staging, developed with director Eric Rosen, deserve attention. So do the creative sound effects Sax makes with the microphone. (If the acting thing doesn't work out, he should seriously consider a career as a foley artist.) This is a show that appeals directly to the ears and the gut, bypassing the head along the way.




Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 14

Price: $20 to $40

Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

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