Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through August 28
Despite the title, Aurin Squire’s play is not really about Barack Obama at all, though he is a dominant offstage presence. The piece tells the tale of Warren (Nicholas Anthony Reid), a middle-class African-American and a Harvard graduate. He’s also a gay vegetarian and a Buddhist, who wants to change the world and be a part of history. So he takes a job as a campaign worker during Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency, and is assigned to work in a black blue-collar neighborhood in East Cleveland, Ohio.
In this new assignment, everything he takes pride in — he’s well educated, well-spoken, and intellectually aware — proves a liability. He’s no more ready to cope with the people of East Cleveland than a middle class white boy would be. And the folks he must deal with regard him as weird, an Uncle Tom and an Oreo Cookie, or worse. His campaign instructors (played by interesting but uncredited actors who appear only in video projections) tell him that doors will be slammed in his face — and they are. They tell him that the Obama stickers on his car will make him an obvious target for white cops, and he’s repeatedly ticketed for imaginary offenses. But he’s dedicated and hard-working and doesn’t give up.
When Warren finally recruits his first volunteer, Cece (Brie Eley), a 27-year-old mother of two, he’s shocked to discover she can’t read. But she’s a dedicated worker and dynamite on the streets, and they’re gratified when their efforts to turn out the vote prove wildly successful. But when he decides to help Cece learn to read, in his unconscious sense of superiority, he offends her, and she spurns his help as denigrating pity and arrogance. She tells him off for thinking he’s smart enough to know what other people need, but too dumb to see his own problems.
A wise older black woman (also played by Eley) gives him a fast practical education, telling him he can’t achieve anything by following the rules he’s been taught. He must learn to improvise and think for himself, and always remember that if life is hard for him, it was a lot harder for those who came before.
In the end the denizens of East Cleveland teach him more than he can teach them.
Writer Squire puts his experience as a news reporter to good use in examining the election process, with all its pitfalls and shortcomings. His script (returning to this theater after a production last year) is savvy, clever and frequently funny, and his characters are richly developed. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera renders the material faithfully and well, and a terrific ensemble of four play a stage full of characters. Reid’s Warren is a charmer, who claims our sympathy even when he’s painfully naïve and wrong-headed. Eley provides a finely etched portrait of Cece and several other characters, and Kurt Mason Peterson and Sally Hughes shine in multiple roles.
Nicholas Santiago created the excellent video designs for the historical pre-show parade of past presidential moments, and for the show itself.
Skylight Theatre, 1816-1/2 North Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz. Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m;, through Aug. 28. (213) 761-7061 or SkylightTix.com. Running time: One hour and 47 minutes with no intermission.