Four Teenagers Try to Exorcise the Patriarchy in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord
Alexis Scheer's bacchic spectacle of a play makes its world premiere at WP Theater.
One of the characters at the beginning of Alexis Scheer's Our Dear Dead Drug Lord enters in the middle of a loud sneezing fit. It's not pollen in the air that's causing the attack; it's an allergic reaction to the cat that she and three other girls are going to sacrifice as part of a ritual to invoke the spirit of notorious Colombian drug czar Pablo Escobar. "Kill it before it kills me," she cries.
No real animals are harmed in the making of this play, but your sensibilities might be if you're averse to violence, which Our Dear Dead Drug Lord has plenty of. You might expect as much, considering a title that seems to pay affectionate homage to a murderous criminal. What you won't expect is what happens later.
I won't tell you what that is, but suffice it to say, I never lost interest in Scheer's play, running at WP Theater, even when it goes a bit off the rails. In her exploration of the damaging effects of the patriarchal subjugation of women, Scheer's narrative grabs hard and stares you in the face (more than once, I felt the actors' eyes glaring into mine). But when it reaches its highest intensity, the play's spell ultimately snaps under the weight of its own conceit.
The locale is Miami during the politically charged months preceding America's 2008 election. Four young female high schoolers, the only members of the Dead Leaders Club, gather in an enormous treehouse (detailed set design by Yu-Hsuan Chen) to call upon the spirit of Pablo Escobar in one of their recurring rituals to contact powerful dead guys. With a huge colorful poster of Escobar on the wall, they sacrifice that ill-fated cat, activate their Ouija board, and begin conjuring (Fan Zhang's sound design and Lucrecia Briceno's lighting add to the scene's spooky atmosphere).
But why Escobar? He was a "business genius," says Cuban-descended Pipe (Carmen Berkeley), plus he was "ruthless" and "f*cking sexy." The others — Colombian-descended Kit (Rebecca Jimenez), Jewish Zoom (Alyssa May Gold), and Afro-Puerto Rican Squeeze (Malika Samuel) — agree to take part in the séance. They're initiating Kit into the group, and they need Escobar's approval.
But angst- and guilt-ridden Pipe, whose sexuality is at odds with her conservative upbringing, has a big ask for the dead drug lord. Years ago, her little sister drowned while in her care and she has never forgiven herself for it. Perhaps, she hopes, Escobar will somehow be able to restore her sibling. But the real question is, is that what she really wants — or needs?
Scheer has a natural ear for dialogue and a real knack for presenting the speech patterns and vogue words of teens post-Bush 2. Director Whitney White, meanwhile, lets the characters talk over one another so that some of the dialogue, much of it humorously trenchant, is missed — and that's OK.
What we're not meant to miss in this 90-minute play are the father- and boyfriend-inflicted crises that Scheer's characters have gone through growing up in a society where men still call the shots. When you're brought up thinking that you are powerless in a world of men, turning to magic and the supernatural might seem like a good way to exert your power and tap into some of that ruthless-male mojo.
In an episode of the play that will not be revealed here, Scheer argues for a more forceful, worldly tactic for women to take charge of their lives and destinies. While the message hits home, the scene wades so far into the supernatural that it ends up sinking into theatrical sensationalism and upending its own indictment of male hegemony.
Despite the problematic episode, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord should still make your list of plays to see this season. It features four top-notch performances and a memorable debut from a playwright whose risk-taking talent is something to keep an eye on — and is certainly nothing to sneeze at.