Our Dear Dead Drug Lord
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
Thank You, Five!
The Gist: I am not a horror person. I once read a scary book and couldn't sleep properly for weeks, and I won't go near a horror movie. So when I found out that the comedy Our Dear Dead Drug Lord centers around a seance to summon Pablo Escobar and will include (warning) some graphic, violent material, I braced myself for what I was getting into. That wasn't enough - but I mean that in the most excellent way possible. It doesn't lean on shock and gore for efficacy. They're there, sure, but used in service of a thoughtful narrative about power, about four teenage girls figuring out how to use theirs - to some truly unnerving ends. Drug Lord is downright harrowing. It is also the best show I've seen in months. There are some things you might see coming from the start, but there are just as many unexpected twists that I will try not to ruin. All I'll say is that I entered the room in a melancholy mood, heard the bright, upbeat Latin music playing before the show started, and thought I'd walk out in a mood that matched it. I did not.
1. To quote my friend: "No one was demonized because everyone was demonized." Alexis Scheer has penned some expert dialogue and characters. Part of their efficacy lies in the fact that in real life, each and every one of them would annoy me. Now, I liked something about each one of them: I saw myself in Pipe in the way she takes the lead in the group, but is still figuring herself out beneath her take-charge veneer. Kit has an enthralling edge that's apparent the second she steps onstage. Zoom is endearing in her enthusiasm and innocence, and Squeeze is unapologetically passionate about her beliefs. (She's also a theatre nerd, so, relatable.) But they push each other's buttons and often times go too far - they break "girl code," not to mention the law, and each one ends up on the receiving and offensive end of an (verbal, for the most part) attack at some point in the show. There's no melodrama here, no black-and-white hero and villain.
2. Lighting and choreography are an underrated, golden combo. About halfway through the show, there is a dance sequence I'll probably be thinking about for the next five lifetimes. Squeeze is teaching the others a dance in honor of her dad to be performed at the talent show. What begins as a silly routine - the dance moves are given such names as "telephone cord," "hopscotch," and "snake eyes" - gets poignant when Squeeze calls the ending moves "dancing on Daddy's toes" and "mad goodbye/sad goodbye." And then, on their second run-through, the strobe lights begin. What we see looks like a frenetic stop-motion animation of each girl losing herself in her own variation on the choreography, and even the originally humorous moves are transformed into something much more urgent and grave. The dance overtakes the girls, and it taps into something visceral in each individual character that's hard to explain. Visually and thematically, it's Drug Lord's ultimate high point - no pun intended.
3. It's deliberately overwhelming, but each of its many through lines is equally clear and purposeful. Drug Lord tries to tackle a lot of different topics in an 85-minute period: censorship, racism, coming-of-age, sex and sexuality, mental illness, political division, loss, and, of course, the supernatural. None of them really qualify as a through line, per se - each has its sporadic moments to take the forefront, and their purposes all come together, albeit a little suddenly, by the end. The treatment of political division particularly stuck out to me - for reference, it's 2008, and the play is happening around Obama's election. Kit and Squeeze champion him, Pipe is an independent who supports McCain, and Zoom is uninterested in politics. There are multiple points at which they debate, talking over each other and calling out what they believe to be the others' problematic or incorrect beliefs. But the play doesn't pit them against each other in the way of promoting one ideology as objectively superior to another. Like the characters themselves, politics - and all the aforementioned topics - aren't made black and white. Scheer's work doesn't appease its characters and promote that they're all right, but it acknowledges that each person has their own situations and reasons that inform their worldview. It's refreshing, and it's authentic.
4. It's queer. (This is not a spoiler.) You ever read a story in which two enemies are fighting, and when one entraps the other and gets (very close) in their face, there's a moment of sudden erotic tension? Yeah, something like that happens between Pipe and Kit about ten minutes in here. You don't even have to wait that long - it takes about ten seconds of Kit being onstage for the lower register of her voice, the swagger in her walk, and the way she sits (if you know, you know) to make it apparent that she's not straight. (Oh, also, the rainbow bracelet, which I somehow missed the first time I watched the play.) Pipe, then, is the closeted, non-confident foil to Kit's boldness. Pipe's sexuality is a fairly major point in her backstory, but during the events of Drug Lord, it takes a backseat in her character arc to her fraught relationship with religion. That said, in the way you wait impatiently for the love interests in a romance novel or Hallmark movie to just get together already, you'll be riveted by each of Pipe and Kit's interactions. Voyeuristic? Perhaps. Riveting nonetheless.
5. "I will not be good. I will be loud." A central theme of this show is finding your own power in a world with so many obstacles to your having it. These girls are all fierce. They're strong. They don't use their power for good, to reiterate my first point. They use it in some places, and to some ends, where they shouldn't. But possessing power is not the problem; it doesn't make them witches in the derogatory sense of the word. It's just that to find it, they seek to, well, get possessed. Fitting, if nothing else, for Halloween.
Editor's Note: Since originally writing this piece, I have gone back to see the show again (four times, to be exact, as of Nov. 23, 2019). I have updated this piece accordingly with details that have become apparent to me in those subsequent viewings. And yes, I am seeing it a fifth time soon.