By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
The mise en scène: an audition waiting room. Allen, an actor (Anthony Franqui) enters, picks up a piece of paper, and begins rehearsing his character’s single line:
“Darren? Pshh…I haven’t seen that guy in months. Not since he got busted for dealing.”
Allen tries out several readings of the line, changing the word emphasis and the character’s accent. His attempts at preparation are both serious (he’s an actor who needs a job) and hysterical (the line really doesn’t lend itself to creative interpretation). Eventually, Allen is joined by three other young men, black actors who have developed a friendly camaraderie over years of going up for the same parts. “What do we have today?” asks one of the hopefuls. “Drug dealer? Gang leader?”
The reply: “No. Friend of drug dealer.”
And so it goes, all too often, for actors of color trying to earn a living at their craft. Although we’ve seen substantial progress, especially recently (i.e., the racially innovative, diverse casting choices for the hit Broadway show Hamilton and in television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Empire), for the most part, the range of roles available to black and brown actors remains frustratingly limited. The #OscarsSoWhite movement reminds us that the struggle to break through tired racial stereotypes is far from over.
In Room 4, TV screenwriters and comedic playwrights Marina & Nicco (Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed, current resident playwrights at the PIT) use humor to make a serious point: for black actors, the struggle for fully realized, non-stereotypical roles remains ongoing and disheartening. The four lead actors in Room 4 find themselves trapped in a “Groundhog’s Day” parallel universe where they must endlessly repeat the “friend of drug dealer” audition experience played out in the first scene. As one of the actors, Pete (Ryan Johnson), laments: “It’s always this drug dealer shit. I played tennis this morning!”
One of the highlights in this short, punchy, and powerful one act occurs when the characters realize that they’re caught in an infinite, repeating time loop. Aghast and incredulous, they repeat the dialogue together—the effect of which is simultaneously uproarious and chilling. In another scene, Greg (a manically gifted Eric Lockley), who has had the most success in booking parts, is asked to read for every black stereotypical role in quick succession: from a black guy way too excited about a fried chicken sandwich at McDonald’s to a street thug. A smarmy offstage white voice urges him to “Go through it again, but like you actually want the part.” When Greg, exhausted, asks, “Was that enough?” the offstage voice, still not satisfied, replies, “We’ll let you know.” (Sigh)…
When we the four actors interact in real life, we see them as individuals, in stark contrast to the unrealistic, stereotypical roles they’re asked to play on stage or on film. Charles (Tristan Griffin) is a tall, pensive, light-skinned man who balks at saying the actual “N” word. He reads a line as written, literally saying “N word” (the way it appears in the script) instead of uttering the offensive word itself. There’s a very funny bit where the other actors taunt him for not being “black enough,” accusing him of following “White Twitter” instead of “Black Twitter.” As his buddies explain, the information pipeline works like this: “Any news about Beyoncé first appears on Black Twitter, then on the blogs, then Buzz Feed, then White Twitter, and finally, when it’s over, on CNN.” Poor Charles. It seems that the only black people not on black Twitter are him and Don Lemon. However, there is hope for Charles: he likes Drake. And while “It used to be blacker not to like Drake, now it’s blacker to like Drake.”
Other black stereotypes show up in Room 4—most memorably, a wise old janitor (the excellent Temesgen Tocruray). His advice to the actors? “Smile. They like to see you smile.” Even the drug dealer, Tooth Blood Rex, questions his own motivation, asking, “I don’t get it. What do I want?” (The answer, provided by the offstage white men in power: “You want drugs”).
In the end, disgusted and disheartened, all of the actors leave, deciding they can no longer perform the roles they’re offered. The hope is that if enough actors protest (or at least question) the “drug dealer/gang leader/friend of drug dealer” paradigm, things are going to have to change. After all, without the actors, the show can’t go on.
Room 4 is directed by Niccolo Aeed, with set design by Madeleine Bundy and Liz Blessing and tech by Chris O’Neil. Performances are at PIT, The People’s Improv Theater, 123 East 24th Street, New York, NY, on Friday, October 28; Friday, November 11; Saturday, November 12; and Sunday, December 4.