I had the good fortune to see Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in its original New York production at Second Stage about 7 years ago, and it’s been one of my favorite new plays ever since. Its nomination for a Pulitzer Prize was well deserved: it is one of the most pointed and most acerbically funny plays to date about race relations in the United States, capturing, like almost no other play I can think of, the complexities of “brownness” in our socio-cultural landscape with acuity, sensitivity, and a fully appropriate measure of anger.
The play is set in the world of professional wrestling, more specifically in a fictional organization called THE Wrestling, where our hero, Macedonia “Mace” Guerra, has the rather thankless job of being the guy who has to lose the match – and lose it well – in order to make the champ look good. As Mace tells it – and we are given every reason to believe him – he does all the heavy lifting, selling all the holds and throws with skill and precision, while his opponent, the charismatic Chad Deity, gets all the credit, fame, and money.
Javon Johnson as Chad Deity
But Mace loves his job nonetheless – it’s the fulfillment of a childhood dream, after all – and he takes some perverse pride in knowing that wrestling depends on guys like him to do the crappy grunt work that generates wild profits up the food chain. The fact that Mace is a brown man – his family is originally from Puerto Rico – makes the world of THE Wrestling an immediately recognizable microcosm for US economic relations generally, which likewise fully depend on the millions of brown people, many undocumented, who do the “heavy lifting” in all sorts of unattractive, underpaid yet indispensable jobs (think agricultural harvesting, meat processing, landscaping, house and office cleaning, call center support…the list is long).
While Mace has a justified chip on his shoulder about his status within the world of THE Wrestling, he doesn’t complain to his boss, THE Wrestling owner Everett K Olson (“EKO”): Mace fully gets that what sells in the world of professional wrestling is a kind of showmanship and simplified jingoism that he can’t muster, and that his colleague – the extremely muscular, winning-smile-possessing, super-charismatic, good-on-the-mic Chad Deity – has in spades.
The play thus makes trenchant observations about our complicity in the systems that oppress us. Mace describes professional wrestling as “the most uniquely profound artistic expression of the ideals of the United States” because “in wrestling, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking.” Mace’s own participation in the system that keeps him down isn’t limited to the wrestling ring. He tells us repeatedly how he doesn’t speak out against false stereotypes and background racism; in fact, his journey through the play involves his getting to the point where he’s fed up enough to finally insist on telling his story and making visible the complexity of his identity.
At the same time, Chad Deity is also really smart on the ways everything is coopted for the sake of profit. As Diaz portrays it, the world of professional wrestling traffics shamelessly in stereotype and caricature. When Mace brings his new friend, an Indian-American named Vigneshwar Paduar (“VP”), to join the THE Wrestling lineup, VP wants to create a character that plays on India’s role in the global economy and highlights his own global savviness – “put me in a suit, and I’m talking about outsourcing tech jobs … They’ll hate me.” But EKO immediately seizes on the idea to make VP a Muslim fundamentalist instead, erasing, in the process, not only the difference between an Indian-American and a Middle-Eastern terrorist, but also lumping together various Latin nationalities (he creates a villainous sidekick “Mexican” character for Mace with the name Che Chavez Castro – for EKO, all brownness seems interchangeable). EKO smells money in the xenophobic anti-Muslimism to be provoked by VP’s character, and even when VP, as “The Fundamentalist,” risks his new job by expressing his genuine outrage in a promo for the fight, EKO embraces it as a way to whip fans into an even greater frenzy – he promptly promotes VP to champion so that he can stage a pay-per-view fight in which Chad Deity will win back his gold belt and symbolically serve up a humiliating defeat to Islamic terrorists on behalf of America.
The stereotypes here go in all directions: the characters that Mace and VP defeat in the ring – a series of variously cowed opponents, all played by Jared Bajoras – are nothing but hollow symbols of white Americans, and Chad Deity himself is a caricature of a bling-obsessed, strutting black man. These stereotypes might tell us something about the racism and xenophobia of the professional wrestling audience, but it’s hard to know how much of that viewing audience watches with a degree (or two or three) of irony – everyone knows that the fights are fully staged and that the characters are deliberately exaggerated, after all. I actually think there’s something else going on here, something to do with the way professional wrestling simplifies conflict and allows viewers to identify with, and against, clear heros and villains. In other words, the play not only exposes and complicates stereotypes, but also lays bare the way such stereotypes, and the entertainments in which they are embedded, indulge a desire to not have to think too hard. We need stories like Mace’s and VP’s to counter such simplifying and dangerously divisive narratives.
The barebones production, staged in the gym at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty, gets many things right. The scenic design is spot on: a professional-grade wrestling ring dominates the space, ringed in the back by a set of video screens that display the wrestlers’ “elaborate entrances” as well as footage of WWF matches and live video feeds throughout the show. Girders placed at angles upstage of the ring, and lit in a variety of bright concert hues by Andy Ostrowski, replicate the gaudy, macho vibe of professional wrestling. The use of video is also quite excellent – the elaborate entrance videos co-produced by Trey Duplain and Sean Starr are shot like professional music videos, and the live feed adds a fun dimension to the play’s commentary on entertainment’s role in perpetuating stereotypes and false narratives. The costumes are also terrific, from EKO’s expensive tailored suit to the comically silly get-ups that VP, Mace, and their generic white American opponents don in the ring. Chad Deity is a play that needs a lot of really slick spectacle, and on that front, barebones delivers.
On other fronts, however, it disappoints. The whole play suffers from a lack of pace – it ought to run like a train on fire – and the choice to depend on the audience to stand in aurally for the wrestling crowd is a wrong one. There are no cues in the dialogue or staging to let us know when we’re supposed to start cheering or booing (or whether we are to do one or the other), and the script would be better served by a robust sound design that gives us the impression we’re in the arena, rather than asking theater audiences – many of whom may be experiencing the world of wrestling for the first time through this play – to serve that function.
The play could also have used more oomph in general from its cast. Javon Johnson is charismatic and winning as Chad Deity, and Patrick Jordan – while probably about ten years too young for the role – is in his comfort zone as the hard-ass boss EKO. But as in the world of THE Wrestling, neither of them is tasked with the heavy lifting – that job falls to Gil Perez-Abraham, as Mace, and Nick Slade, as VP. Mace needs a bit more wattage than Perez-Abraham provides; he seems to have found the character’s sarcasm and wit but not his charm. As VP, Slade gives us a lot of anger and umbrage but none of the character’s intellectual nimbleness. In addition, he has the wrong physique to serve the comedy of the play, which depends, in part, on the implausibility of the wrestling scenario EKO plans to make bank on – that is, of a weak-looking “Muslim” unexpectedly taking down a massive opponent with a single kick. The script calls for him to be tall and lanky – he’s supposed to have never wrestled before – but he’s almost as physically imposing as Chad Deity.
The barebones team deserves great credit nevertheless for taking on such an ambitious project, and I suspect that audience members who didn’t have previous exposure to it were less disappointed than I with the pace and the character interpretation. And even if the production didn’t live up to my expectations, I’m still grateful that barebones brought this fabulous play to Pittsburgh – we’ve had to wait a long time (seven years!) for someone to have the chutzpah and dedication to give it a go.