Alexis Scheer Gives Us the Dope on Her Play Our Dear Dead Drug Lord
A group of girls summon the spirit of Pablo Escobar in the new dark comedy.
You'll want to remember the name Alexis Scheer. Fortunately, it'll be hard to forget after seeing her bracing, unpredictable dark comedy Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. A production of Second Stage and WP Theater directed by Whitney White, the play follows four high school girls — all members of the Dead Leaders Club — who gather to summon the spirit of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
It's a bold, twisted, and audacious concept, and this play marks the first time that Scheer, making her off-Broadway debut, recognized her voice as a writer. Audiences are riding a roller coaster with this one, and she's excited to be pressing the go button.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became a playwright.
I'm from Miami originally. I've been working in the industry since I was nine — both doing theater and voiceovers. I went to New World School of the Arts for high school, which is where Tarell Alvin McCraney went, and that was an amazingly robust program. Their ethos was that we're all self-sustaining artists, so you should learn how to tap dance and program a light board and write a play. I was studying musical theater, but I also took a playwriting class, and it was really game-changing for me at such a formative age.
I have a BFA in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory, and it was a hyper-focused "let's all be on Broadway and kick our face" kind of program. I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to do all the things, so I knocked down some doors and made them give me a playwriting class. I started my theater company and started producing while trying to figure out how to move through the world as a theatermaker.
After school, I was producing and acting and submitting my writing to places. Kate Snodgrass, who's the head of the MFA playwriting program at Boston University, said I needed to apply for that program. I just graduated this May, and I had a major identity crisis in the middle of it. It was the first time where I really just owned that playwriting hat. I realized that playwriting is actually where it clicked and where I have the most to offer. That was super empowering. And then I wrote this play. [laughs]
How do you even come up with the idea to write a play about four high schoolers trying to summon the spirit of Pablo Escobar?
I started writing this play about two-and-a-half years ago, shortly after the inauguration. There were a lot of things swirling around my head. I'm Colombian and Jewish. My mom emigrated from Medellín in the late '70s. The Colombian cartels and Pablo Escobar is a weird part of my family mythology that I don't understand, because I feel so distant from it. So that's where that came from. I think it's a very American play, and part of my experience as an American is trying to touch upon the generation or two before me that was outside of this country and what they fled to get here. So this was me trying to connect to my roots.
I feel like when you're a young, baby playwright, you're learning about your voice through how other people write. Your first plays are you trying to write the Sarah Ruhl play, and the Charles Mee play, and the Lynn Nottage play. My playwriting hero is Sarah Kane. Drug Lord tumbled out of me, and it was the first time I looked at a play of mine as "I think this is my voice."
The four women in the play have such complex conversations about life and politics and sexuality. You don't really see people writing high school students, particularly female high school students, like that.
I'm working with these four amazing actors, who are trying to live and breathe as these characters, and none of them are playing stereotypes. Especially the two Latina characters. As a Latina, you're either playing the sexy, fiery, sassy one, or you're in jail. I'm writing the roles I wish I had to play when I was younger.
A lot of it was asking how we write multifaceted young women. I was in high school in 2008, when the play is set. When I was that age, I thought I was an adult. So I'm empowering these young women to speak with conviction, especially about politics. And a lot of what they're spewing is what they hear on the news, or what they're hearing from their parents, so I make sure to call that out, too, but they're smart. They're using SAT words. They're learning. I'm trying to honor and respect what real high school students know.
There are aspects of Drug Lord that are really intense. How are the audience reactions so far?
It's been really exciting. We've had people who are really here to listen to young women, which is great. There's a lot of whiplash in the play, which is intentional. You're laughing one minute and then the next minute, we're talking about serious stuff. Every preview I've seen so far, everyone's really able to ride that wave with us. And then we get to the end and people freak out.
I go to the theater to be unmoored, and that's just what needed to happen in this play. We live in a time when we're all so desensitized to so many things. I think it's important that it's happening in this theater. It's nice to jolt people awake a little bit.