Christine Hoang is something of a rarity among Austin playwrights: a creator of modernist, narrative dramas in the tradition of O’Neil, Miller and Williams. Her work eschews postmodern tricks and instead focuses on slow character-building and nuanced relationships, with a slam poem or musical number occasionally thrown in here and there to liven things up. Her “A Girl Named Sue” won the Austin Critics Table Award for best new play, and this holiday season she’s bringing back an older work, “People of Color Christmas,” that takes a woke look at Christmas through the lens of a truly multicultural cast of characters.
The first thing that makes “People of Color Christmas” unique is its producing partner. The show is a co-production between Color Arc Productions and City of Austin Parks and Recreation, Museums and Cultural Programs Division, meaning that it is actually a city of Austin event. As a result, each weekend the play has been presented at a different cultural center. Thus far it has appeared at the Asian American Resource Center and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. In its final weekend it will be at the Dougherty Arts Center. Tickets are free; though most performances are currently listed as sold out throughout the final weekend, organizers say that thus far everyone who has come to the show on the wait-list has been admitted to the performance.
Beyond the interesting production partnership, “People of Color Christmas” is also notable for being a remounting. Originally produced at Ground Floor Theatre in 2015 as “People of Color Christmas: The White Elephant in the Room,” it was Hoang’s first play. Now, with a few years’ more experience, she has rewritten about half of the dialogue and worked with dramaturg Ashley Jernigan and director Rudy Ramireze to tighten and heighten the play’s theatrical experience.
In its current form, “People of Color Christmas” feels like a television sitcom Christmas special whose well-drawn cast of comedic characters are culturally sensitive about how being a person of color impacts their lives even during the holiday season. Of particular note are Allegra Jade Fox as Sasha and Lillie Lopez as Gabby, whose duel emotional arcs provide the show’s loose narrative structure, and Ryan Darbonne as Daniel, a gay black man who eschews all stereotypes to exist as a unique, individual character (complete with show-stopping original hip-hop number). The cast members are almost all seasoned improv performers, which adds an element of spontaneity to the show, as ad-libs foster legitimate laughs from castmates that help to consolidate the characters’ friendships.
The play is very funny at the same time as it is culturally aware, and both of these aspects work best when they are in harmony with one another. Hoang’s sense of humor in the writing is strongest when it is addressing particularly difficult issues, like cultural appropriation and the linguistic nuances of political correctness. Similarly, she handles these thorny issues the most powerfully through her wit. When the two diverge is when the play hits its lower points, either becoming overly silly or overly preachy.
Even in these few moments, though, “People of Color Christmas” retains its most important characteristic — its heart. This is one feel-good holiday special that doesn’t rely on tired clichés about “good will towards man” and instead embraces everyone in the audience, regardless of gender, sexuality, color, ethnicity, or religion.
“People of Color Christmas”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Road
Cost: Free; registration required at pocchristmas.eventbrite.com
Information: 512-974-3772, austintexas.gov/event/people-color-christmas