The months leading up to Barack Obama’s election as this country’s first African-American President serve as the backdrop for Aurin Squire’s semi-autobiographical Obama-ology, the 2015 Juilliard grad’s engaging look at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history as seen through one 20something black man’s eyes.
The son of college-educated professionals, Squire stand-in Warren Clayton (Nicholas Alexander Reid) would have much preferred “sunny, beautiful Florida” or “the shores of North Carolina” to the suburban blight of Northeast Ohio as his swing-state destination, but East Cleveland is what he got when assignments were divvied out.
No wonder then that Buddhist, vegetarian Warren finds himself no more familiar with the blue-collar lives led by the East Clevelanders he’s come to enlist in a get-out-the-vote campaign than are his white counterparts, though they at least don’t have to fear being pulled over by racial-profiling cops simply for DWB (driving while black), or in one instance simply for NWB (napping while black).
A series of early house-to-house visits hint at a rocky road ahead. Doors get slammed in Warren’s face. He gets told that elections don’t change a thing. One white woman tells him bluntly, “We don’t vote for blacks in this house.”
And then he meets CeCe (Brie Eley), a 27-year-old single mother whose initial excitement at being part of such historic change withers when she is asked to fill out a volunteer form and Warren correctly surmises that if the would-be campaign worker refuses even to sign her name, it’s not as she claims that she has simply forgotten her reading glasses inside.
Still, miracle of miracles, CeCe does show up to volunteer, and in so doing awakes in Warren an unspoken awareness that had their upbringings been reversed, they could easily have found themselves more or less in each other’s shoes.
Warren’s growing involvement in CeCe’s life, and a realization that he might actually be able to play a part in changing its trajectory, form the heart and soul of Squire’s powerful play, world premiered two years ago in London and now getting its first U.S. production at Skylight Theatre.
Still, Obama-ology wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without the other folks Warren meets on the road to election night 2008 and beyond.
There’s Laura (Sally Hughes), the white campaign director who suggests that by speaking what Warren dismisses as Ebonics, he might better fit in with those he’s come to recruit, and Barbara (Eley) and Sam (Kurt Mason Peterson), the more seasoned couple of black-and-white East Cleveland field organizers who make it their business to teach Warren a thing or two about campaign life.
There’s also an elderly East Clevelander (Eley) who knows first-hand the obstacles prospective black voters faced in the Civil Rights-era south, a white convenience store clerk (Hughes) who won’t let Warren out of her line of sight, an angry, frustrated Obama street canvasser (Eley) who shares a frightening car ride with Warren, and a series of racist white cops (Peterson),
All of the above shape Warren’s coming of age, along with a surprise revelation to a suddenly flirty Laura about a rocky relationship with conservative parents whom he is too afraid to confront about his “lifestyle choices.”
Imaginatively staged by director Jon Lawrence Rivera, Obama-ology features a pair of star turns portending big things ahead for Reid, who can light up a stage with his smile and command an audience’s attention with talent and charisma in equal measure, and for the equally luminous Eley, whose transformation into four distinctively rendered major characters is as wondrous as chameleon-like acting gets.
Hughes and Peterson are given less to do, but what they do, they do extremely well, as do the videotaped Nick Cimiluca, Ivan Davila, Emily Kuroda, Nardeep Khurmi, Elizabeth Pan, Renee Threatte, and Jerrell Lee Wesley as assorted “Instructors” imparting often humorous pearls of campaign wisdom along the way.
Running in rotating rep with Jason Odell Williams’ equally engrossing, equally political Church & State, Obama-ology features the same topnotch design team—Jeff McLaughlin (scenic), Sohail E. Najafi (lighting), Mylette Nora (costumes), Christopher Moscatiello (sound), and Nicholas Santiago (video)—to striking effect.
Christopher Hoffman is stage manager. Obama-ology is produced by Gary Grossman and Rachel Berney Needleman in association with Providence Entertainment, LTD. Emyli Gudmundson is associate producer.
As timely as today’s headlines, Obama-ology reveals a fresh new playwriting voice. It is insightful, moving, funny, provocative, inspiring pre-election theatergoing at its L.A. best.
Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.
July 23, 2016
Photos: Ed Krieger