A review of “Is She Dead Yet?,” Brandon J. Simmons’ exploration of a timely topic. In the play, only one black person still exists on Earth — and her time is limited.
There are some muddled moments in “Is She Dead Yet?,” a new play written and directed by local actor Brandon J. Simmons, but they’re counteracted by the work’s forceful sense of purpose and the way its ruthless satire has the ability to sharply, suddenly snap into focus.
Adapting Euripides’ “Alcestis” — about a wife who sacrifices herself to save her husband from death — Simmons expands the Greek tragicomedy’s critique of a patriarchal society to comment on the pervasiveness of white privilege, imagining a world where white people are immortal and only one black person still exists — and her death is imminent.
In Simmons’ dystopia, the United States has become so xenophobic, it’s now referred to as its own planet, while blackness is so rare, some mistake it for a skin condition. The last black person on planet America, Aretha (Yesenia Iglesias), gave up her own heart to save her husband’s life, and has been living on borrowed time with a mechanical ticker that’s about to stop beating. Her impending demise has her husband (Alex Matthews) inconsolable, a chorus of nosy neighbors intrigued and politicians of all stripes angling for a way to capitalize on the tragedy.
‘Is She Dead Yet?’
By Brandon J. Simmons. Through Aug. 22, at Annex Theatre, 1100 E. Pike St., Seattle; $5-$18 (206-728-0933 or annextheatre.org)
Some of the play’s broadsides are too broad, mocking the obvious manipulations of the craven U.S. president (Hannah Victoria Franklin, channeling a Dana Carvey imitation) or the racist jokes of Aretha’s babbling father-in-law (John Wray). These are obvious, comfortable targets, and the generally shrill tenor of the performances makes it easy for the viewer to dissociate from the implications.
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Simmons’ play is far better and much more discomfiting when it veers into the surreal, illustrating the ways in which unconscious white privilege is inseparably tied to the attitudes and actions of the majority. The members of the chorus (Soren Gillaspy, Paige Clark, Tom Wiseley, Shane Regan), who can never seem to agree on their own identities, offer hollow consolations and pat themselves on the back for their enlightened views and Internet activism without ever even acknowledging Aretha’s personhood.
Many of the performances are outsized and uneven, but it’s Iglesias — who almost never utters a word — who gives the play its core humanity with her burning, searching eyes, even as her agency is stripped away entirely.
Aided by an unnerving atonal score from the Christen Audio Group, “Is She Dead Yet?” becomes increasingly confrontational, culminating in a disturbing, dissonant musical number that angrily — and brilliantly — exposes a toxic inequality.