Take a little bit of Justin Bieber, add some “Making the Band,” toss in a dash of George Bernard Shaw and you’ve got “P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle,” a world-premiere play running this month at Studio Theatre.
“When I started [writing], I was fascinated with Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and how they seem to adopt black culture as sort of a rebellion,” says playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm.
Chisholm, who is making his directing debut with this show. “When is that collaboration beneficial, and when is it detrimental to the people involved? The artistic relationship between different cultures is always fraught and, especially as a minority, you never know when your work is being commodified for the right reasons.”
In the fictional play, the team behind white Canadian teen heartthrob Dorian Belle hires a black hip-hop act (Petty Young Goons, aka P.Y.G.) from Chicago to help toughen Dorian’s image, a process that’s also being filmed for a reality TV show.
Chisholm, who is black, often puts race at the center of his plays. His 2017 work “Br’er Cotton,” for example, is about a black teenager who, as a response to the killing of black men, begins to incite riots online and at school. His “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” is about one black teenager teaching another the “right” way to be black. (Mosiac Theater’s 2017 production of the show won the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding original new play or musical.)
“P.Y.G.” takes some elements from Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” which inspired, among other works, “My Fair Lady.” “It’s a very, very loose adaptation in that it’s two characters teaching a third character how to act,” says Chisholm, 34.
It also asks the question of whether the “right reasons” for being interested in another culture are ever the only reasons.
“[Dorian’s] marketing and PR people set this thing up,” Chisholm says. “He has the intention of actually learning things, but the machine behind him may have different ideas. So he’s torn between his responsibilities as a performer and what he actually is interested in.”
Chisholm’s major inspiration for “P.Y.G.” came from audience talkbacks after performances of his other plays.
“A lot of the white audience members were inspired to take action and would ask me what to do,” Chisholm says. “So I thought I’d write a play that basically tells white people what to do.”
That doesn’t mean that
Chisholm, who received his MFA in playwriting from the Catholic University of America in 2016 and has set plays in and around the D.C. area, knows exactly what to tell his white audience members — like many conversations surrounding race and the line between being inspired by a culture and appropriating it, there’s a lot of ambiguity. That doesn’t bother him.
“In some ways I’m trying to give some concrete answers,” he says. “As well as ask some questions that I don’t have the answers to myself.”
Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, through April 28, $46-$76.‘‘‘