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Theater Review: “What You Are”

“What You Are” plays through June 30, 2019 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

Work is how most of us verify that we are somebody. That is true of all workers, but especially of white men with less than a college education.

At the beginning of playwright JC Lee’s “What You Are,” mid-50s white Don (Jonathan Walker), who helped run the family ranch in Nevada but now makes deliveries for a tech firm, is meeting with new Latinx 30-something manager Hector (Adrian Anchondo), who explains the new computer-based rating system for employees.

It’s that old bugaboo change: everybody loves it until it affects you negatively. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that change is neither good nor bad, just inevitable. And the only thing we as individuals can control is our response to it.

Don’s response is, let’s say, unfortunate, especially when their discussion turns acerbic (after Hector points out that Don’s customer ratings are “not all 5’s”). Don not only gets the point, but gets furious, leading to miscommunication, violence and Don’s subsequent firing.

Losing his job – annoying as it was – shatters Don’s self-image, and he repairs to the local bar to discuss it with friend Randy (Mike Sears).

Meanwhile, both Don’s black wife Sigourney (Omozé Idehenre) and his college-age daughter Katie (Jasmin Savoy Brown) try unsuccessfully to smooth things over with Hector. Katie has postponed college to care for the family. Now she and her mother will resort to revenge, which they regard as the only solution.

“What You Are” is heavy on identity politics (you’ll see racism and sexism) and somewhat light on believable plot turns, but the play is always engaging.

The character of Don was inspired by Lee’s own family. “What You Are,” which began as a reading in The Old Globe’s 2017 Powers New Voices Festival, has just opened its world premiere run through June 30 at The Old Globe’s White Theatre.

The acting is excellent. Anchondo is a typical ambitious managerial type, thinking more in bottom-line than human terms, dismissively ignoring Don’s different set of values.

Walker’s Don is convincing, even moving as we observe his ego in danger of collapsing in on itself.

Idehenre’s Sigourney is a warm motherly figure with a backbone of steel. Brown is smart and funny as would-be college student Katie. And it’s good so see local actor Sears onstage again as Don’s old friend Randy.

“What You Are” isn’t a perfect play, but it does at least one important thing very well: it inspires conversation among playgoers. And that’s not so easy to come by.

The details

“What You Are” plays through June 30, 2019 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org