Pro tip for aspiring playwrights: If you want success, write something that purports to skewer the American mythos but actually doesn’t—or at least not in ways that might create discomfort in the bourgeois theatergoing audience you’ll need if you want to make it big.
That’s the formula Lin-Manuel Miranda employed to create megahit Hamilton, which holds itself out as radical revisionist history: recasting the founding fathers as people of color—those denied political agency in revolutionary America—and letting them retell America’s creation story through the language of hip-hop (well, let’s be honest, hip-hop lite). But in truth, Hamilton offers nothing revisionary. It reiterates the amnesia-fueled, yay-America myth that the founding fathers were motivated almost exclusively by love of liberty, rather than, say, the need to protect their tea-smuggling operations (John Hancock, I’m looking at you). In the process, Miranda reinforces the reactionary norms he might have challenged: only men belong in the political arena, a woman’s proper concern is finding love, slavery doesn’t matter, Native Americans don’t exist.
In some ways Kristoffer Diaz, in his 2010 Pulitzer finalist The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, takes an opposite approach. Here our patriotic myths of national identity (America is the land of opportunity, anyone can succeed through hard work, we’re a tolerant melting pot) get turned inside out to reveal their emptiness. He does this through the extravagant and obvious metaphor of men’s professional wrestling, the jingoistic spectacle that generates millions through hyperbolic fakery. Our hero and narrator is Mace (Alejandro Tey), a talented young Puerto Rican from the Bronx who considers wrestling an art form yet earns his keep losing rounds to the superstars, most notably charismatic, camera-friendly champion Chad Deity (Semaj Miller). As Diaz drives home a dozen or so times in his first act, Deity is talentless yet successful, while Mace is the opposite. Hard work doesn’t hold a candle to marketing. Got it.
From there, Mace’s friend VP (Priyank Thakkar), a neighborhood lothario of Indian descent, enters the ring, refashioned as a Muslim terrorist and christened the Fundamentalist. Along with Mace—now rebranded as his sidekick, American-hating Mexican insurgent Che Chavez Castro—he becomes the most hated man in wrestling, bringing in big bucks and facing Deity in a championship bout. The none-too-subtle point, of course, is that in America, as in wrestling, we distort, fetishize, and demonize our supposed enemies (Muslims, Latin Americans, et al) to shore up our alleged national goodness.
True enough, but Diaz is content to otherize the xenophobic, racist impulses in our national psyche, making clear demarcations between right-thinking and wrong-thinking characters, flattering rather than challenging (or, God forbid, implicating) his audience. Director Jeremy Aluma’s relentlessly broad approach in this Red Theater remount doesn’t help. v