Johnny Hobson is a wise-beyond-his-years teenager who works afternoons with his Mexican-American best friend, Delinda, at the Dairy Queen in Cedar Springs, Texas. He's got charisma, a unique personality and--although he has yet to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up--confidence galore.
All of which is probably why most of the other high school students--jocks, the social elite and, eventually, Christian fundamentalists--distrust him. Johnny, you see, is on his way to becoming his own person.
As played by Ryan DeLuca, a University of Arizona theatre arts student, Johnny Hobson comes alive in The Bible Belt ... and Other Accessories, written by Texas playwright Paul Bonin-Rodriguez. Arizona Onstage Productions and director-producer Kevin Johnson are presenting the one-man show through Sunday, Jan. 20, at Zuzi's Theater.
The Bible Belt is the second in a cycle of five plays by Bonin-Rodriguez, and according to a press release, it has been produced in more than 30 cities and in three languages. Last year, Arizona Onstage presented the first of the cycle, Talk of the Town.
I never saw that play, but as I watched The Bible Belt, I didn't miss it, either. Although viewing it in the context of the other plays may offer some different rewards, The Bible Belt is a complete and satisfying theater experience by itself.
It helps to have an actor as talented as DeLuca playing Johnny, and a director who has ably coaxed a winning performance from him. Although DeLuca is the only actor in the show, there are many characters. Johnny has a preternatural talent for mimicking the folks around him, so we get to meet many of the inhabitants of his town and beyond.
Viewers will feel at ease with Johnny as their host and tour guide through Cedar Springs; he's already so comfortable in his own skin that he doesn't even need to mention that he is gay. It's just a part of who he is.
DeLuca is sweet, charming and completely believable as Johnny, who one minute is patiently humoring Delinda when she delivers Spanglish political proclamations, and the other daydreaming about the handsome, shirtless man in a red convertible who visited the Dairy Queen's drive-though window last year.
Much of the action revolves around Johnny's adventures in home-economics class. A substitute teacher, Miss Dove, has taken over for the semester, and the fact that she is African American allows the play to explore similarities in discrimination shared by Johnny, Delinda and Miss Dove.
When DeLuca liberates Miss Dove from Johnny's memory, he becomes her on stage, even though he's dressed in blues jeans, red sneakers and a cowboy shirt. To his credit, and that of the author and director, Johnny doesn't portray Miss Dove as a caricature of an assertive black woman, nor with overly flamboyant femininity (i.e., en travesti), but simply as an inspiring role model.
Miss Dove sees potential in Johnny's eye for fashion and Delinda's creative way about the kitchen. So she encourages them to enter a statewide home-ec competition. While Delinda concocts a vegetarian cross between a tamale and an enchilada, Johnny designs and assembles a prototype for a new Dairy Queen uniform shirt: a red gingham Western job with a fringed yoke, spangles and sequins.
Johnny and Delinda take top honors in the state contest. Bubbling with their success in the big city, they return to a different Cedar Springs, one in which a new fundamentalist movement has taken hold of the town and its teens, allowing latent intolerance to spring forth.
Johnny is confused: That youth minister sure has gorgeous blue eyes, but he's transforming teenagers who were simply immature into vicious automatons.
The stage is set for Johnny to become the hero he always wanted to be. Those miniature Bibles the kids always seem to be handing out inspire his latest fashion innovation and de facto protest vehicle that would put to shame some of the on-the-fly creations by the competitors on Project Runway.
It's damn hard to own a stage for some 80 minutes, solo and without a break, but DeLuca pulls it off admirably. At times, the blocking feels a little clumsy, as if the production were self-consciously trying to move DeLuca around the stage too much. Lighting and music cues are also too busy for the same reason. Johnson might've trusted the script more, as well as the attention span of his audience. But those are quibbles.
There's more than enough to keep us rapt in Johnny's monologues, his energetic re-creations of full scenes from memory and his hilarious impersonations. Johnny comes alive, finally, as an individual, because he's an integral part of a community--and that community is part of him.