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Latinx playwright Alexis Scheer on the origins of her pitch-black comedy Our Dear Dead Drug Lord
Playwright Alexis Scheer dabbles in witchcraft. "It's a spiritual practice for me," she says, noting that she only does "light magic," casting positive goals into the universe. "I've got crystals I keep set up on an altar, and candles that I light with intention and meaning. I get it all from my mom."
The characters in her play Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, however, use sorcery for more nefarious means. In a Miami treehouse in 2008, four teenage girls cobble together bits of ritual gleaned from the movies to try to conjure Pablo Escobar -- yes, the dead Colombian drug lord.
Of all the historical figures a group of adolescents might want to resurrect during a séance, why the murderous cocaine kingpin? Like Scheer's witchy proclivities, the choice of Escobar was also influenced by her mother. Right before she started on the play, Netflix's Narcos about Escobar's cartel was at peak popularity. Scheer was enthralled by the series and suggested her Colombia-born mom check it out. "I don't need to watch it -- I lived it," her mother replied bluntly.
Soon after, Scheer was visiting her extended family in Medellín, Colombia, where Escobar's operations had been based. She told her cousins she wanted to do the "Pablo Escobar tour." "They were horrified," she recalls. "That made me feel extremely American to have no connection to this thing that the previous generation dealt with very intimately."
So Scheer -- who has a BFA in musical theatre from The Boston Conservatory and an MFA in playwriting from Boston University -- decided to write a very dark comedy that explores her connection to her heritage and her fraught coming of age in 2008 Miami. After many years of development, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is having its world premiere courtesy of WP Theater and Second Stage.
When they're not using Ken as a makeshift Escobar voodoo doll, the four classmates in the play are navigating more familiar teenage struggles such as parental pressure, sexuality and the loss of loved ones. On the brink of adulthood, they're trying to figure out how to empower themselves, and they decide a Ouija board and blood sacrifices are the best way to go about it.
"Girls are going to find their power however they need to," says Whitney White, the director of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. "If we don't talk to young people, they might find it in the wrong place."
Historically, witchcraft has either been dismissed as a frivolous practice or weaponized against women à la the Salem witch trials. "Magic has always been about self-actualization and self-possession," explains Scheer. "And it's always been inherently feminine, which is why it's so polarizing in this country. When people feel helpless, they start looking for other sources of power."
Scheer acknowledges her show is part of a wave of recent plays exploring girldom, such as The Wolves and Dance Nation, both of which she cites as inspiration. With Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, she wants to show that teenage girls can be violent, scary and potent and vulnerable, confused and terrified at the same time.
"So much of the play is about my generation -- the post-9/11 generation that's grown up and absorbed the fear and anxiety that runs through our world," Scheer says.
Another impetus to write Our Dear Dead Drug Lord was the lack of rich roles for young women -- something that bothered Scheer when she was studying acting growing up. "I remember being in high school and working on a scene from Angels in America playing Harper," she says. "Why was I doing that? Who let me do that? We just didn't have good meaty roles for teenagers that took their interior lives seriously. Particularly with Latinas."
Ultimately, Scheer hopes the play will get audiences thinking about how they can better support the teenage girls in their lives. "A father came and saw the show, and he told Whitney afterward, 'The play made me really wonder if I'm standing in the way of my daughter's power,'" Scheer says. "That felt huge."
Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Alyssa May Gold, Rebecca Jimenez, Carmen Berkeley and Malika Samuel in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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