Obama-ology is a coming-of-age story for our political generation. Obama was -for better or worse- our JFK/RFK election moment. And you could feel that among young people in their twenties. This was our moment of awakening and disenchantment. This was our moment of post-racial America and re-racialized America. I have never seen celebrations like the ones in 2008 after he won the election. All of my friends had their own election night story, what they were doing, how they were feeling, where they went to be in flow with something. And all of us have had our disenchanting moments the last few years–some have dropped out of politics, others feel betrayed, some feel justified. But 2008 was a turning point in not only American history but for the world. It’s hard to understand that if you’re over 40, but when you’re a part of the younger generation you can feel the energy.
The title was initially AFRICAN AMERICANA. Most people thought it was boring. OBAMA-OLOGY was something I could remember and that stuck out. And (like any title that sticks out) there are people who love it and people who hate it. I’m not really that concerned if it turns audience members off. If you’re unwilling to go to a play because it has ‘Obama’ in the title then I don’t think you’ll like the play anyway. When I write I’m not really concerned about the audience. My concern is to get the singular truth of that story out there, the clarity of the voices, and the sharpness of perception. I’ve had amazing plays that have never been seen before a large audience and I have written so-so okay plays that have gone on to play in front of sold-out crowds. Audiences are unreliable judges for anything concerning artistic integrity. Don’t get me wrong: we love audiences and hope they love us back. But as an artist in my twenties, I learned that if I wanted to be serious about craft then being scared of offending the audience was not helpful. That included not being scared of offending them in anything from the title of the play to the actual content. It’s stifling. We already have enough voices of doubt in our heads without adding the outside ones. And I think a title like REAGANOLOGY would definitely make me stop and read the synopsis. And if the description was intriguing I would easily go see a play about Barry Goldwater, Reagan, or Trump.
I was a campaign staffer in East Cleveland. After 2008 I came back to NYC and went on with my life. A few years later I was walking through Brooklyn when I came across an arts gallery dedicated to political activism and paintings. In the gallery were copies of speeches by Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I met someone there who recommended me to a political festival titled ‘FROM OCCUPY TO OBAMA.” The organizers asked me if I could write a short play about Obama, which became AFRICAN AMERICANA. It was only 10-15 minutes and got a very positive response. And then the play went up in London at Theatre 503 in another political festival. So I had a free week and decided to try writing a full-length version of the play which became titled OBAMA-OLOGY. Then I got into Juilliard and OBAMA-OLOGY became the first play I brought into class. I think a lot of the inspiration was eclectic.
The play was first done in a Juilliard New Play workshop in September 2014. We rehearsed during the summer and put it up for a few days. And then it went up in London, first on the West-End at Finborough Theatre and then at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). The reactions were very positive at Juilliard and RADA. At Finborough they got really positive at the end once the cast hit their stride. It’s a bit difficult when shows only run 15-20 performances. I wasn’t at the shows in London but I’ve been told it made a lot of people cry…hopefully in a good way and not in anguish.
5. What does OBAMA-OLOGY bring to the table?
Theatre is intrinsic to democracy. In Ancient Greece the two were intertwined because speakers needed rhetorical skills, the ability to have group empathy, the ability to have negative empathy (to understand someone you don’t like or agree with), and group dynamics and live performance. That will never change. Theatre does something special because it’s happening on visceral level of being present in the midst of its creation, again and again. It is born and dies with each performance and you unite as a group to contribute to that energy of instant creation and dissolution. It’s this same energy that takes place in primary caucuses, city council meetings, town-level democracy. Persuasive rhetoric and group dynamics can shift a small caucus which shifts an election, which can shift the world. Theatre is the practice of that in preparation for exercising the grassroots level of democracy. And democracy is practice for theatre. The two intertwine around because they require the same sociological and psychological tool kit in the ‘here and now’ present moments.