Harmon Leon has lived an interesting life. His surprisingly happy-go-lucky production, Harmon Leon’s Big Fat Racist Show, invites listeners to follow along as he wanders the country in search of some of the more extreme members of American society. Leon is a semi-professional — or at least habitual — infiltrator. Using assumed names and assorted hairstyles, he has placed himself brazenly into a number of uncomfortable positions. For example, has been a contestant on a number of reality competition dating shows, presenting the most obnoxious versions of himself to see how far he can go before anyone suspects a fake. As it turns out, quite far.
In this presentation — I hesitate to call it a show as so much of it is participatory and conversational— the VICE writer and roving journalist discusses his multiple and various forays into the world of deep-seated bigotry. He has met with Ku Klux Klan wannabes to see what it would take to join their organization, tagged along with the Westboro Baptist Church on a protest to try to figure out what makes them tick, and he walks into a machine gun event populated by aspirant Confederates and Second Amendment zealots.
Technical difficulties caused a delayed start and forced the staff at 59E59 to improvise a bit, which may have thrown Leon off his game for the first several minutes, but as soon as he relaxed things started to flow.
When settled, Leon is a natural and engaging storyteller. His powers of observation, coastal liberal sensibilities, and overabundant chutzpah make him a great witness to the xenophobic and isolationist tendencies to be found in many parts of Middle America. He talks about his fear going into each situation, his first impressions, and how banal it can all be at times. Nevertheless, when faced with situations of extraordinary oddness, even if menacing, it’s hard not to be taken with the lengths people will go to in order to feel better about themselves.
The problem with this performance is balance. Leon has over 150 visual cues, but we never see how he has presented himself on any of his self-assigned missions. He has taken photos to document these excursions, but they don’t always capture what he’s really talking about. Instead, a lot of time and energy is spent on the interstitial shtick between the stories. A silly recurring game of Racist/Not Racist and video clips of puppies are his attempts to reduce tension. Perhaps he doesn’t understand that the tension is what makes each of his stories good. The tension is what draws people in. That’s where the realness lies, and video of a smoking baby is not the way to transition between tales.
His stories have interesting premises, interesting middles, but more often than not end abruptly and without denouement. The audience is left to make what they will of these anecdotes, but really what I wanted was more detail, more depth, more about what he saw and learned and took away from each mission. Leon has an understanding that you can talk about tricky subjects and be funny, because he does and he is. Racist Show has the potential to be a really great project, but it would benefit from a thorough editorial workup. A little less repetitive silliness and a little more pathos will make the difference between something amusingly interesting but unessential and something with the power to stick with the audience after they’ve left the theater. In this political climate, with race and guns at the crux of so many debates over the direction in which the country should go, as the elections draw closer, Leon’s piece has the benefit of prescience and timing. With a little more work, possibly over the course of his run in Edinburgh, he’ll have something relevant and vital. I would look forward to seeing that again.
Harmon Leon’s Big Fat Racist Show is running as part of 59E59 Theaters’ annual East to Edinburgh series.