Teenagers tend to be reckless, sure, but few would gather in a spooky tree house to summon the spirit of Colombian drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar. But then, most aren’t as hardcore—or foolhardy—as the members of the Dead Leaders Club, a group of private school girls in Miami who dabble with supernatural forces in Our Dear Dead Drug Lord. This unsettling, befuddling play by Alexis Scheer is now in its midwest premiere at Steep Theatre, directed by Sophiyaa Nayar.
Our Dear Dead Drug LordThrough 12/10: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; audio description and touch tour Sun 11/20; open caption performance Sun 11/13; Steep Theatre, 1044 W. Berwyn, 773-649-3186, steeptheatre.com, $30-$40 ($10 access tickets)
Since its founding in 1964, the high school’s Dead Leaders Club has offered students the opportunity to study historical icons such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Princess Diana. When we meet the members in 2008, the club has taken a darker turn under its current president, a firebrand called Pipe (Isabella Maria Valdes), who selects controversial subjects such as Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin. Recently, its status as a school-sponsored club has been revoked due to allegations that the members used school funds to buy cocaine.
Carrying on with their activities anyway, the members initiate a new student, Kit (Isabel Rivera), on the same night they hold a séance to speak with Escobar. The group is now a foursome, with Kit joining Pipe, Squeeze (Elena Victoria Feliz), and Zoom (Lauren Smith), who all go by nicknames determined by a Ouija board. Initially it’s unclear why they choose to summon Escobar, beyond the fact that the girls feel an undeniable attraction to the handsome drug lord, revered by many Colombians as a Robin Hood-like figure despite his crimes.
Anyone who was a teen in the early 2000s will relate to many references in the play, from the pervasive fear of terrorist attacks—for these characters, 9/11 is a childhood memory and the 7/7 London bombings are a recent event—to lighter throwbacks like Hot Topic, dial-up Internet, and the rise of the hipster. The 2008 presidential election also looms large, with Squeeze and Pipe sparring over their respective support for Barack Obama and John McCain.
Paranormal elements aside, the play takes a serious look at the struggles of adolescence. Between them, the four girls face more than their share of trauma: family deaths, self-harm, domestic abuse, unplanned pregnancy, repressed sexuality, and more. Conversations about race also create tension among the diverse group, which includes Afro-Latina, Colombian, Cuban, and Jewish members. Despite strong performances from several cast members, I found it difficult to connect to individual characters amid this smorgasbord of storylines.
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord held my interest with its well-paced, unconventional plot and morbid humor, but I left the theater unsure of what Scheer wished to communicate to the audience. The play ends in shocking brutality, magical happenings, and a twisted vision of female empowerment, which comes at great cost. A lengthy excerpt of Spanish dialogue is translated on a lobby sign as patrons exit, but this offers little illumination. If you’re looking to carry on the Halloween vibes into late fall, this show might be for you, but I found little payoff in its heavy subject matter and graphic violence.