Aiming High and Almost Hitting the Mark in ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’

This is not a musical about Michael Jackson.

That might not seem like something that needs to be said but, even the mention of Michael Jackson could lead others to expect some grand musical odyssey through the life of the King of Pop. While it isn’t a play technically about him, the playwright Aurin Squire has put together a coming-of-age journey that uses Michael Jackson as a metaphor. This world premiere play focuses on a group of friends, the main and only members of the Opa-Locka Michael Jackson Fan Club, and their hopeful attempt at creating the perfect mural of their musical idol. 

As they take on this opportunity to express their admiration, they deal with gentrification, racism, colorism, violence, sexuality, and sexual abuse.  That might sound like a lot to explore in a one act play clocking and just over 90 minutes, but when it comes to growing up, and growing up black in America, all these things ring far too true. But while all of these things are a part of the experience, it doesn’t always mean they work while attempting to tackle them all at once. Many things feel unfinished, untouched, brushed over, and rushed – not to say they don’t have poignant moments that address each of these topics, but one moment does not an exploration make.

With Shaun Patrick Tubbs at the helm, the play’s authentic voices of the characters have a chance to blossom through the actors, and they took that chance and ran with it.  Frenchy (Sydney Presendieu) is the president of this Michael Jackson fan club and sees herself as the group leader. Presendieu, a recent New World alum, fills the character with a vibrant energy and depth that lets us truly witness the highs and lows of childhood and what it feels like to be pushed aside and ignored. She navigates the plays themes with ease, never feeling out of place as we jump from moment to moment.

Miami New Drama ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ Featuring Sydney Presendieu (Photo by Stian Roenning)

Obadiah, a.k.a. Obie,(Xavier Edward King) acts as the de facto second in command to Frenchy of this messed up little friend group and serves the play as it’s narrator. King, a Chicago theatre native, is the tour guide through mid-80’s Opa-Locka and not the kind you try and tune out. His handling of the language borders on the poetic, each line given the respect it is owed. To watch him go from charismatic storyteller to vulnerable broken teenager is a real treat, and one you don’t want to miss.

Miami New Drama ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ Featuring Xavier Edward King (Photo by Stian Roenning)

Red/Yellow, twin brothers played by the same actor (Dylan Rogers, another Chicago theatre native), are a dangerous and unpredictable team. While still being a part of the group, they seem to exist on the fringes of not only this collection of teens, but of society as whole. Red is an outright thief, taking what he can without consideration for anyone else. He is the most volatile of the two, keeping everyone around him on edge, never knowing what he is going to do to a stranger, or any of those “close” to him, and Rogers inhabits this perfectly. Yellow might be his twin, but behaves and is treated like the little brother. He isn’t as confident or as brash as Red and only speaks when necessary in part due to his stutter, and while Rogers was able to clearly connect to Red, Yellow never feels fully realized. Bouncing back and forth between the two is a challenge and Rogers does not shy away from it, but when it came to the speech impediment, there seems to be a disconnect that could’ve been fixed with possible speech direction, which only would have elevated an already wonderful performance on behalf of the actor.

Miami New Drama ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ Featuring (L to R) Dylan Rogers, Joshua Hernandez, Xavier Edward King (Photo by Stian Roenning)

The final addition to this rag tag crew is Jack (Joshua Hernandez). The new kid on the block – a kid the likes of which they had never truly seen before… a white kid. This might not seem like something to mention, but considering the fact that these other characters have never really had much interaction with white people before(growing up in 1980’s Opa-Locka will do that do you), this is a very important element of this play. Remember that whole gentrification thing I mentioned early? Jack is the start of it, the personification of that whole idea, as he moved in and unknowingly disrupted the whole community. Hernandez, a Miami raised/New York based actor, makes the shy, naïve, and tone-deaf Jack someone you want to root for, while at the same time hate. 

Miami New Drama ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ Featuring Joshua Hernandez (Photo by Stian Roenning)

These 4 actors give the audience something to hold onto through the complication that is growing up. Along with the actors, the design team create a beautiful and lively production from the temple like set, designed by Frank J. Oliva(which might be too large for such an intimate play), to the colorful concert-like lighting design(Nicole E. Lang), through to the effortless sound design by Quentin Chiappetta. This music video type world is brought to life with extreme care from each of those involved, and thankfully, considering some of the subject matter, they brought on intimacy director Nicole Perry. Without whom the play couldn’t handle the emotional and physical gravity which feels so grounded within this play.  This team givers the play a confidence to traverse the tribulations of puberty along with the murky waters of race and everything that comes along with it. 

This play might feel like it takes on too many ideas at once, all being viewed through the lens of teenage adolescence, but it’s a play that needs to be seen. In the whole of South Florida Theatre there aren’t many new works by people of color being presented, at least not ones that have the same sense of humor, wit, and depth within the heavier subjects of those within Defacing Michael Jackson. Miami New Drama doesn’t seem afraid to confront the audiences with the tough questions, no matter who they may be.

Miami New Drama ‘Defacing Michael Jackson’ Featuring (L to R) Sydney Presendieu, Joshua Hernandez, Xavier Edward King, Dylan Rogers (Photo by Stian Roenning)

Defacing Michael Jackson is about joy, and how that joy can be snatched away and come crumbling down. While the play could have opened with an equally joyful dance that it presents within the bows, it still stands on the strong feet that most struggle to find. Ringing contemporary truth through an 80’s period piece. Yes, aspects of any of its touched upon themes could’ve been further explored but at least they were there. The topic of racism is addressed, colorism is confronted, gentrification is railed against, sexuality is looked at, and abuse is thrown into the air. Aurin Squire and the team should be commended for the world and time they took us back to, a sociopolitical climate that isn’t too different from where we are now unfortunately.

Catch the closing weekend of Defacing Michael Jackson with only 4 performances left. Get your tickets below before it’s too late.


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