What It Is
The question of representation in entertainment is a front-and-center issue of our time, even if you’re not working in the industry. With trending topics like #OscarsSoWhite, the raging back-and-forth around Hamilton’s non-white casting call, audition room role reversals, and a recent surge of Asian awareness in Hollywood, it’s pretty familiar territory to anyone with a finger on media’s pulse.
Room 4, by Marina and Nicco, and playing twice more at The People’s Improv Theater (5/26 & 5/27 at 9:30 PM) takes an extended look under the hood, moving deeper than hashtags and taking full advantage of comedy and theatrical history to deconstruct depictions of black characters and the use of black actors in America. Four actors stuck in an existential time loop play out their most stereotyped role, tortured from beyond time and space by the twin fantasies of white supremacist media — the Angry Black Guy and the Magical Negro.
The piece moves as a series of comedic scenes spiraling on a theatrical framework that draws variously from Beckett, commedia dell’arte, and Groundhog’s Day. To quote the aptly worded release, “It’s funny, but a little angry, but mostly funny.”
Why It’s Good
As mentioned before, the dominant American entertainment culture is reeling from a multifaceted movement toward equal representation in the media. It’s no coincidence that this cultural offensive is occurring alongside broader mobilization around racial and social justice in the streets and at the polls. And while offensive casting choices like ‘Gods of Egypt’ continue to happen, the justifiably frustrated responses seem faster and louder.
“Room 4” rallies comedic theater to the charge to confront the issue head-on in a relatively short swirling of scenes that begin in utter banality. Four black actors (Odera Adimorah, Anthony Franqui, Tristan Griffin, and John King) come in to read for the same old Drug Dealer #2, or friend of drug dealer, or whatever — it’s always the same. Things get weirder as the rules of the world break down, and they’re forced to repeat the exercise in countless iterations, far past the point of memorization and into abstraction.
Two sets of external forces guide their path. On the instigating side, a white casting agent (Tom Powers) and a Random White Dude (Alejandro Kolleeny) seem to arbitrarily control some aspects of their fate. (Already with the commentary…) And on the other side, Temesgen Tocruray and Richard “Big Rich” Armstead play a collection of demons and phantasms that constrain and limit our heroes’ potential, including the most stark of Hollywood stereotypes. While the four core characters are also familiar to us, they have far more in common with self-depictions of fully humanized black characters, and so stand in sharp relief to the reductive sketches at the heart of most black roles.
The core ensemble is a delight to watch play together, and Marina and Nicco have done good work to keep the dialogue flowing and the camaraderie palpable. They bounce between brothers-in-arms, impassioned orators, and complete clowns.The whole production has the effect of distracting you with cathartic jokes and physical comedy, while slipping in some deeper thoughts and understandings.
After transcending the repetition, the scenes dig deeper into conversations about culture, blackness, and life, but we’re left always wondering what’s an audition, what’s a performance, and what’s authentic. The live stage is the perfect place to explore racial performativity, and the way the ensemble brings the contrasts and outrages to life before our very eyes is powerfully funny. And without a doubt, the identity crisis for the performer of color reconciling his own depiction seems the rightful heir to the theater of the absurd.
In many ways, “Room 4” doesn’t want to be perfect. It wants to get messy, expose itself and our culture, and connect with the audience on a human level that doesn’t need too much polish and overly careful presentation. And in that, it is very successful. But the serious ambition, both on the page and playing out on stage, in going into a conceptual framework like the time-loop purgatory may require even tighter execution than this already well-made piece.
Though we always return to the central conceit of the loop, as “Room 4” proceeds we spend more and more time in fantasy interludes that while fully related to the action, or even played out by the core ensemble, seem to stray structurally. At times the loops feel like a vehicle for connected ideas or a frame for a thematic sketch show, rather than telling the story itself. That said, Marina & Nicco and the cast earn some great surprises and moments through this tinkering with form.
And while there’s a time and a place for everything, granting this is a comedy theater, I probably could have felt a little bit more uncomfortable. Early on I knew I trusted the writers and performers to challenge me and the audience, and while they definitely edged on it, it wasn’t necessarily as angry as I expected — or maybe hoped. Justifiably disappointed and frustrated certainly, but aside from a few moments the anger seemed more bitterness at the mythologized stereotypes themselves, rather than the largely white culture-and-taste-makers that engineered and promulgate those stereotypes. And while in the end we do sympathize with the ashamed archetypes as they mourn their stillborn souls, we forget about the white instigators who pop in and out of the scene as they please.
But perhaps that’s the point. We work and we fight and we endure and we come to understandings, and still the absurdities rage on and dominate our lives.
All that said: “Room 4” is a timely and enjoyable series of enlightened laughs and worthy ideas, and a deeply needed catharsis that only something like live staged comedy can provide.