by Sabo Kpade
Talks of an Obama biopic have been dismissed as too hasty – the cinematic equivalent of burial rites performed in anticipation of the subject’s death. One could say the same about any number of works of art with him as inspiration. Wiser to wait for when his tenure is over, when the merits and demerits of his presidency can be weighed in completion. But even then the early onset of nostalgia could creep in, colouring his legacy and this may be dependent on how well or not his successor does in office. Perhaps there will never be a right time. Perhaps the time is now as his plummeting approval ratings sharply contrast with his landslide 2008 victory and the once soaring rhetoric of hope has peaked leaving variable clouds of achievements.
Obama-ology tells the story of Warren (Edward Dede) a young African American who joins the Obama campaign in 2008. That he is college educated and gay may place him at odds with the grittiness of East Cleveland, a poor and deprived black neighbourhood, where his team goes to canvas for votes and volunteers. Whether to prepare him for the challenges ahead or some sort of projection of self-hate, Barbara (Amanda Wright) his African American colleague, gives him a hard time in a scene that is mediated by Sam a Caucasian, who from all appearance is just another colleague. Barbara is a seasoned campaigner who believes Warren is unsuitable for the job partly because of how much his education and mannerisms make him inflexible, in a role that requires adaptability.
After unsuccessful and increasingly frustrating cold calling at the doors of locals, Warren meets Cece (Pearl Mackie) a 27 year old single mother of two who listens to what he has to say but does not show any enthusiasm or awareness for the election. Her illiteracy confounds Warren and juxtaposes the two of them maybe a little too neatly. When Cece later shows up at the team’s office to sign up to the campaign Warren is delighted and their relationship develops into the emotional core of the play.
With the exception of Warren the lead, the four people cast perform as many as 20 varied roles with much zest. Whether it is Pearl Mackie as Caits, a no nonsense New Jersey woman burdened by a family bereavement or the hilarious pair of Peter Caulfield and Katherine Newman as New York hippies Brad and Lainey, the versatility of each actor is showcased adding even more scope and texture to the play. The all-British cast do very convincing and varied American accents and that this is done in a fast paced play without lapses is commendable.
Director Tommo Fowler capably marshals the many scene changes and character parts on a stage the size of a double bedroom. Actors seen changing wardrobes in dim lights near the stage did not distract this viewer but rather pointed to the mechanics of a production often unseen.
Warren’s journey is that of the novice who realises his new world is not all it appears to be. As far as plots go this is cast iron. So a lot depends on how much empathy one can feel for Warren, how much emotion overrides critical alertness and in this playwright Aaron Squires succeeds.
One does wonder what Warren would have made of the Obama of 2014?
You can see Obama-ology at the Finsbourough Theatre until December 16th.
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Sabo Kpade’s stories have been published in Verdad, Glasschord, The Writer’s Room, Sable and Gertrude Press. His play Have Mercy On Liverpool Street was staged by Talawa Theatre Company. He is currently at work on his first novel, Anyone’s Ghost.