Earlier this month, I watched the opening premiere of West Adams at the Skylight Theatre Company and the first immediate thought I had when it finished was:
“Oh damn, this is Rich Liberal White People (And One Chinese Woman) Gone Crazy.”
I’ll definitely go more into this after the break as there were tremendous things to be praised for this show (acting, directing, and production design aspects) but at the core of it was a very troubling and, at times, a baffling story. Who was the intended audience? That aspect remains unclear but more on this later:
Written by Penelope Lowder and directed by Michael A. Shepperd, West Adams focuses on two interracial well-to-do married liberal couples who live in the West Adams district of Los Angeles and very much pleased to be taking part in the community’s gentrification. But, all of this changes when a very wealthy black family moves in across the street. As the two couples try desperately to keep up with the new family, the pressure to do so devolves them into an extremely ugly downward spiral.
The interracial couples are played by Sarah (Allison Blaize) & Edward (Andrés M. Bagg), and Julie (Jennifer Soo) & Michael (Clayton Farris), all of them who ferociously commit to the growing ugliness and insidious racism they exhibit against their new neighbors with the exception towards the Edward character as he becomes the sole voice of reason in the sea of madness as his friends turn against him and use his Latin background against him.
For 85 minutes, you will be watching three absolutely unlikable characters (with the mentioned exception of Edward) drive themselves into madness and just be the worst despicable human beings around. With that being said, this may not be the kind of theatre for everybody as it can be difficult to watch characters, who for the most part, don’t have any growth or arc to them but remain just terribly awful people throughout the show.
I am aware that the playwright’s intention was to show liberal people living in white privilege can indeed be outright racists when they perceive their values and way of life threatened but the intention and purpose of such a piece is unclear other than audience members leaving with perhaps some satisfaction of “thank goodness I’m not racist like them (and if they actually re, they won’t publicly admit it and instead loudly proclaim the sheer audacity of how racist white people can be)”. It is also without a doubt the kind of show conservative audience members would avoid like the plague as it is clearly not written for them.
It was particularly confusing to watch the only Asian American character be so horrendously racist, even though there is a major back story revealed that sheds light that she had a childhood friendship that ends in tragedy when her father found out the friend was black aka that “I wasn’t always racist” moment. It is the type of tragedy that doesn’t translate to her being who she is now with her insistence that she needs to be like white people and not like black people.
There is no question that anti-black racism exists among the Asian community and therefore it does not mean that these type of characters should not be portrayed. But if they exist, then for the case of Julie, the backstory needs to make sense rather than just being a well-meaning attempt to give the character some dimension and then disregard it. That being said, Jennifer Soo utterly annihilates the role and completely goes for the eventual depravity of the character even though I had major issues with the character’s line of thoughts.
The same can be said for the two other Caucasian members of the cast, Allison Baize and Clayton Farris, who equally act the living daylight of their roles and just makes the audience despise them thoroughly. It is challenging for actors to play such unlikable characters with conviction and passion and these two actors did so with jaw-dropping moments of WTF throughout the show. The horrendous human trophy moment does belong to Jennifer Soo however, with one particular decision she makes at the end that had my jaw hanging the lowest in absolute disbelief.
Thankfully, Andrés M. Bagg as Edward is the heart of this show who starts off being the least racist when the new neighbors come into their West Adams neighborhood and gradually shows more resistance towards the growing madness his wife and his friends exude until it comes to a point where he takes a side and sacrifices everything for what is right. Andrés imbues the role with such conflict, compassion, and pain that you cannot help but root for him all the way. He is perhaps the one true saving grace in a show that is rifled with ugliness.
I did admire the design elements of the show, with the team including Stephen Gifford (Scenic Design), Mylette Nora (Costume Design), Donny Jackson (Lighting Design), Jesse Mandapat (Sound Design), and David Murakami (Projection Design). All these elements came together quite well, especially David Murakami’s projection design which comes into full effect and the cracks literally start showing when the racism of the characters become rampant.
Under the direction of Michael A. Shepperd, the piece moves at a frenetic brisk pace while he lets his actors rip. To some, they may view that as perhaps over-the-top, to me, I revel in those kind of performances so I give kudos to him for not playing it safe.
While I have issues with the writing and question who this piece is particularly intended for, I do appreciate provocative works of art even if their purpose is not exactly clear and the majority of their small ensemble lack any depth or arc to them besides just being downright terrible people. I appreciate works written and directed by PoC artists and I applaud the Skylight Theatre Company for being one of the very few theatre companies in Los Angeles willing to put up numerous original works by PoC artists and cast PoC actors in meaningful lead roles on a regular basis as opposed to having just one minority play of the season. So despite my issues with the story, I can definitely recommend this show as something at least worth watching.
West Adams runs through March 8 with performances Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets range from $20 (Thursdays) to $41 (all other dates) and can be purchased at SkylightTheatre.org. The Skylight Theatre is located at 1816½ N. Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90027.