Despite the old school rap blaring as you enter Stuart Theatre and the traditional set with which you are greeted onstage, a drab government building overladen with mahogany and filing cabinets, Sock and Buskin’s new play Hype Hero is, above all, about modernity. It is simultaneously futuristic, current and archaic. It is a hyper-real representation of America, circa 2014.
Hype Hero, written by Dominic Taylor MFA ’95 (in typical open curriculum fashion, he also received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Brown) and directed by Kym Moore, is described by the playwright as “an afro-futurist Comedy of the Absurd.”
And absurd it definitely is. Everything is slightly off–the phone ringing sound effect is eerily hollow, soldiers burst on and off the stage, and the entirety of the first act takes place outside the Mayor’s (Crystal Kim ’16) office. The Mayor is a bumbling bureaucrat, a dictatorial, paranoid and ineffective leader in a dress wrought with sequins and ruffles. Kim’s portrayal is spot-on, channeling Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and every political leader since Abraham Lincoln.
But the show is not Kim’s. It’s Sarah’s, Kim’s “administrative assistant,” played with equal reserve and ferocity by Jordan DeLoach ’15. Her role as Sarah is complex, requiring her to navigate both cultural and personal allegiances while remaining in her office chair almost the entire show. DeLoach is both the most active and inactive member of the cast, symbolically as much as literally. Her facial expressions, physicality and vocal shifts (at times performing “propriety,” especially when talking to The Mayor, at others employing use of vernacular, depending on her audience) are integral to her construction of Sarah.
The plot of Hype Hero is simple, almost nonexistent. We are in a vaguely dystopian future (or merely a farcical version of today). People, in order to become debt-free, have sold themselves to corporations. Everything is privatized. The day’s stock market earnings continually flash on a screen atop the set. It’s a neoliberal’s nightmare, a particularly self-aware one.
Rick (Keston McMillan ’17) has a few questions for the Mayor, but the severely stratified society does not allow Rick, a member of the underclass (who are denoted as such by a “patch”), to speak to her directly. Their conversation must take place with Sarah as the mediator. McMillan’s portrayal of Rick is the least flashy part of the show. He is quiet, generating tension from within, until he explodes. His combination of naïveté and understanding of what’s really going on is fascinating to watch.
There’s also a local hero and creator of the patch system, William Moore (Emmett Rahn-Oakes ‘18), who returns to fawn over Sarah. What ensues is two hours of sharp social commentary, a hostage situation, and a media frenzy, all brought to life by physical comedy, satire, and moments of true pathos.
Moore is particularly skilled at building tension through dialogue (of which there is a lot). But more specifically, her triumph is creating a stage environment where everyone is talking to each other, but no one is listening. Everyone is in their own world, a subtle but important indictment of the walls modernity and technology build up around people.
This point hits the audience hard. The lack of interaction between people of different classes is merely a dramatization of a current reality. To find people physically in the same place but mentally somewhere else, all you need to do is walk through the Main Green and look at everyone on their phones, plugged in and plugged out.
But Hype Hero‘s cultural criticism doesn’t stop there. In fact, the play is tackling issues of systemic racism, neoliberalism, and the privatization of space; above all, it asks the question: How can we define ourselves if our existence is so entrenched (and ultimately, defined by) systems that we have no say in creating? And, further: What does it mean to be human in the 21st century?
Hype Hero is a play about race, and yet, it is a play about much more than race. It’s a play about the systems that construct race, about the arbitrariness of racial categorization, about where we, as a society, believe certain people belong (both spatially and in a broader sense).
There are sequences of dialogue and monologues that will have you snapping in agreement. The ideas raised aren’t exactly revolutionary; but the manner in which they’re presented forces the viewer to ponder whether there truly are any differences between the hyper-reality on stage and actual reality. The satire is both truly funny and extremely effective.
The acting is strong across the board and the play moves at a deliberate pace, the tension ratcheting up slowly but surely. The citizens, played by Sam Rubinek ’17, Charlotte Hacke ’15 and Eric Baffour-Addo ’18, are hilarious and accurate in their caricature-ish portrayals. Hacke is particularly effective as a TV news reporter (“Katie Kurick”) covering the hostage situation while hypersexualizing herself, providing a perfect example of the small but important cultural details Moore has placed throughout. Jordan Stein ’17 and Areeb Mahamadi ‘17 further the image of the incompetent government worker as the hilariously in-sync Inspectors. Oyindamola Akingbale’s ‘17 character, Leah, provides both comic relief and complex moral dilemmas as she weaves on and off stage as the office’s janitor.
Because of the sheer magnitude of the thematic content, Hype Hero can be, at times, grandiose. The dialogue can be vague, theoretical and overly broad. The script’s grand claims can border on pretentious, such as when a character tells the audience that “God is us.” But it’s a smart script, one that, through quick references throughout, acknowledges the historical threads that have compounded to create modern systems. If there’s one thing Taylor is sure of, it’s that nothing is accidental.
Hype Hero is playing today through Sunday, November 2 and Thursday, Nov 6 through Sunday, November 9, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 for students and can be found here or at the box office in the Leeds breezeway.