Playwright Alexis Scheer sets up an intriguing premise with her new play, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, in which four mostly-privileged Miami schoolgirls convene after class to praise and summon the ghost of Pablo Escobar. The play has entertaining moments of great comedy and (scattered) insight about what it means to be young and drawn to popular icons. And yet, the play loses coherence over time and we’re left with too many questions that start to undercut Scheer’s truly original idea.
The story takes place in 2008, before and shortly after Barack Obama’s election. Its characters form the Dead Leaders Club, which has recently been booted from their prep school’s campus because of an alleged misuse of funds. The club, we are told, was founded in 1964 in honor of John F. Kennedy, and has slowly devolved into the kind of blind power-worship we’ve come to expect in a Wolf of Wall Street society.
Each semester they choose a new object of worship—president of the club, Pipe (Carmen Berkeley), makes Escobar her controversial selection. Do the girls actually respect Escobar? Some do, others weakly protest but bow to the authority of Pipe.
Pipe is, by virtue of getting the most time on stage, the play’s center, and a rather fascinating one at that. The daughter of a powerful lawyer, she represents the Cuban-American faction of the country which, stinging from Castro’s regime, cling to hard-R Republican ideals. Her pick of Escobar seems more a way to annoy the moralistic Left than an earnest interest in the man himself, and she constantly rails against the “oppression” the club faces in being kicked off campus: an infringement on their First Amendment rights, her father has trained her to say.
She is backed by Zoom (Alyssa May Gold) and Squeeze (Malia Samuel), as well as new girl Kit (Rebecca Jimenez), whose moody presence and vocal discontent with the club and policies raise the (unanswered) question of why she remains a member.
As directed by Whitney White, the four central characters – two more join towards its conclusion – shift rather wildly between friendliness and antagonism; one second they’re giggling over on member’s overtly sexual obsession with Escobar, the next they’re pulling knives on each other.
These tone shifts are embraced – though not justified – by Yu-Hsuan Chen’s fun set, strewn with Floridian flourishes and pool floaties. Lit in candy-colored pinks and oranges by Lucrecia Briceno, the set presents a vision of childishly privileged Miami, ripe for mood swings and drama. But the play is not sure how to unify these stylistic flourishes with its overabundance of ideas. One scene manages to make these elements work. A dance choreographed by Squeeze pays off because of the scene’s clear intent: the routine, meant to be a profound interpretative piece, is hilarious in its misguided incoherence.
Scheer rightly deserves credit for trying to accomplish…something new, but her originality is buried by overindulgence in wildly varied themes. The first ten minutes or so provide us with a grab bag of interesting questions: Who gets to be studied, and how? Why does the study of a political figure so easily slip into idolization? How have years of media misrepresentations shaped the way we perceive historical icons? How can a privileged class come to understand (or not) the impact of forceful power on the world at large? They are the questions I tried asking myself throughout a play content to graze over them on their way to the Next Big Hot Button Issue.
While the question of the girls’ privilege in connection to Escobar alone would be meaty enough to dig into for a one-act, 90-minute play, Scheer noncommittally touches on other issues that impact the characters. Sexuality, post-9/11 paranoia, female friendship, family tragedy, American partisanship, domestic abuse, societal trauma, patriarchy, guilt, academic pressure, immaculate conception, the tendency to lionize anyone whose made a name for themselves and, of course, the afterlife are all thrown into the mix. But these are fleeting and remain as loose as the connection between the characters.
We’re never quite sure what to make of these teens, or whether we’re supposed to laugh at their hubris, or cringe at their toxicity. It becomes evident that the play is at its strongest when the characters are satirized, as in the dance scene, instead of made to be mouthpieces for competing ideologies. With a premise as preposterous as this, it’s distracting to pull away from the inherent absurdism and focus on half-baked ‘seriousness.’ A stronger directorial hand to guide us through might solve a lot of these problems, though I fear they are baked into the text.
A violent act committed late in the play introduces an element of shock not altogether warranted, and is followed by a monologue detailing the work’s ostensible meaning…delivered entirely in Spanish.
I’ll applaud the choice to employ Spanish – despite being almost insultingly grammatically incorrect – to stay true to the character delivering it, but half of the mostly English-speaking audience seemed to be searching about for supertitles. They were left without the key to unlock and understand much of the neon-colored clutter.
Scheer may have overextended her reach with this pseudo-examination of girlhood and friendship in a media-saturated age, but she does not lack in creativity and vision. Despite all of its flaws, Our Dear Dear Drug Lord demonstrates an exciting new playwright’s willingness to explore messy, challenging themes.