It’s possible to change one’s initial opinion to more fully understand and appreciate a play, or any work of art, after mulling it over for a while. In fact, many would argue that a person should reserve judgment until there’s been a moment to consider the piece. Yet the longer I think on the third selection in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2007 Humana Festival — Naomi Iizuka’s “Strike-Slip” — the angrier I become. Rife with inaccuracies, improbable situations and stereotypes, this play is hardly worthy of being included in a festival as important as Humana.
First, the play draws a parallel to the film “Crash,” which also upended the philosophy of chance by connecting diverse characters through seemingly random events. Iizuka very well could have written this play long before “Crash” was made, so the blame lies not with her but with the board that chose this play to be included in a festival merely a year after “Crash” was named Best Picture at the Oscars. There are far too many similarities to not draw comparisons, and the movie, while controversial, still covered this material far better than the play does.
Characters are poorly drawn, relationships are vague at best, and the playwright does nothing but perpetuate racial stereotypes even as she tries to trick the audience with surprise character turns. Asian shopkeeper who speaks broken English? Check. Black thug who’s really a cop who’s really a dirty cop? Check. Yuppie husband who’s in the closet? Check.
The relationship between Rafael (Justin Huen) and his wife Angie (Ali Ahn) is so predictable that it resembles an after-school special. Running away from home as teens to be together, they’re about to have a baby and constantly argue because, of course, they have no money. Having been fired from his job in a body shop (novel, a Latino who works on cars), Rafael comes home to find Angie has wrecked the car he has on loan from some guy he worked with who went on vacation and then died. Huh? As he examines the damage, three bags of cocaine fall from the fender.
The play paints Rafael as a good kid, and the fact that he must ask how much to charge for a kilo of coke further emphasizes that point. Thinking he’s just hit a lucky break, he calls the now-retired cop Frank (Keith Randolph Smith), whom he met that very morning at work. Rafael assumes that because the cop has a nice car, and obviously, no black man could make enough money to buy that nice of a car, he must deal drugs. Surprise! He does.
Rafael claims to have 80 kilos of cocaine. That’s around 180 pounds of coke, and he meets Frank with the drugs in his backpack. Right. Then he hands Frank a $20 bag of coke. Now, Frank is wearing the same clothes he had on that morning at the body shop, so we can safely speculate that all this action occurs in one day. This insinuates that Rafael, although he doesn’t know how much coke costs, has both the innate knowledge of how to cut up cocaine, and has some $20 bags around the house in which to put it. In yet another improbable turn, Rafael shows no sign of nervousness upon meeting this cop who, if his instinct is wrong, could put him away for a long, long time.
I don’t even want to get into the hilarious notion that Rafael could, with his $480,000 from the coke, buy a business, maybe a house in Santa Monica on the ocean, and send his wife back to school.
Authors and playwrights cannot afford to be sloppy with research. Yet Iizuka writes that a kilo of coke goes for $6,000, which is absolutely erroneous. Even if you think your audience has no knowledge of something, it doesn’t mean you can just make stuff up. Someone always knows.
Pray tell, was this the best of the best? Were no better plays submitted? If that’s the case, I’m terrified for the future of American theater. Or, did the board just see Iizuka’s name, and with her having had four other plays produced at Humana, include her on those grounds?
The Humana Festival of New American Plays is supposed to herald the direction of modern theater. If “Strike-Slip” is where it’s headed, I’ll wait for the next train.