From a wrestling ring to tiny boxes: How ‘Chad Deity’ went Zoom
By Maya Phillips and Elisabeth Vicentelli
If you had to select the least likely play to translate to Zoom, it might well be Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.” A 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist, the play uses the outlandish world of professional wrestling, with its larger-than-life heroes and villains and reliance on ethnic stereotypes, to consider the power of storytelling itself.
The Second Stage Theater production, which The New York Times praised for delivering the “delicious crackle and pop of a galloping, honest-to-God, all-American satire,” also handed out body slams and “powerbombs,” carefully rehearsed with a fight director. So when Play-PerView announced a live reading of the play (streamable until Aug. 20), directed by Diaz and starring most of the original cast, the question was: How would such a physical show, which encouraged vociferous audience reaction, feel in little online boxes, with actors physically distanced?
To answer that, critics Elisabeth Vincentelli, who saw the original production (and praised it as one of the 25 Best American Plays since “Angels in America”) and Maya Phillips, who had never seen it onstage, watched last weekend, and talked. These are edited excerpts from their conversation.
ELISABETH VINCENTELLI: When Play-PerView announced this reading, my first reaction was incredulity: How could a play so physical that the stage directions come with safety warnings possibly translate online? Did it work for you?
MAYA PHILLIPS: Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought the ways the production translated the action via Zoom was great. The choreography between the wrestlers — the stances, the reciprocal actions, how we see one attack and the other fall backward to the “mat” — really gave us a great sense of the interplay we would be seeing if this had been live. I was missing, however, a sense of place in the scenes, when we’re transitioning from the ring to the office, etc. How did the production meet your expectations (or not)?
VINCENTELLI: Honestly, I’m not sure I would have been as impressed if this had been my introduction to the play. “Chad Deity” is a textbook example of theater in which form is completely wedded to function. When I saw it, there was a ring onstage and frequent interaction between the actors and the audience. The whole thing was an assault on the senses, in the best possible way: The music was really loud, the lights were really bright. The star wrestler Chad Deity (Terence Archie, back in the role and still able to wriggle his pecs) distributed dollar bills with his face on them to the audience. It was just nuts and breathtaking because it connected so well with the play’s subject.
PHILLIPS: The stage production sounds like an amazing spectacle, and I do wish I could have seen it, but I was still able to appreciate Diaz’s great writing and the actors’ performances. And to play devil’s advocate, I wonder if we couldn’t just consider how the circumstances, even though unavoidable, may inform the content in a totally new way? Part of what Diaz is writing about are the places where this fictional sport — or art form, really, the way the protagonist, a wrestler named Mace (Desmin Borges), describes it — rubs up against reality. They are performers, and part of that is a performance of racial conflict. I wonder if that tension between the real and false parts of these matches could have been represented and highlighted by this Zoom format, in which we’re so much more aware of the artifice of it all?
VINCENTELLI: Before I elaborate, I want to clarify that I don’t think the play is gimmicky at all: There is a point to the staging. It all comes together because, as you said, the writing is so sharp. The constant tension between reality and artifice is the essence of wrestling, but Diaz’s point applies to American pop culture in general: It is fueled by the need to create make-believe and fantasy.
The reading did make me more aware of how the play takes down capitalism. Mace is a fall guy: the wrestler who is paid to make the star look good. And the idea that someone has to lose, and lose badly, for someone else to succeed is a key component of capitalism.
The fact that Chad Deity is meant to be a bad wrestler just adds to the cruelty of the system: This is no meritocracy.
PHILLIPS: Absolutely. But I didn’t take capitalism as the central target. What interested me was how the characters chose to play into, or rail against, racist stereotypes. I was so ready for Chad Deity to be white, but I think the fact that he’s Black makes it so much more interesting, because the question then becomes one of how complicit these wrestlers of color are, and of course part of that is a question of survival, of “playing the game” and acting the part just so you’re able to get on with your day to day in America.
And I keep thinking back to the last line, when a character looks at Deity and the cheering spectators and asks why they’re rooting for the bad guy. Deity is this stencil of a character, seemingly unaware of the choice he’s making — at least to me, though maybe he’s more aware than I’m giving him credit for? — and how damaging it is to allow these mostly white audiences and a white institution to manipulate the stereotype of the scary Black man into entertainment.
VINCENTELLI: Oh, I think Deity is aware of what’s going on and how he is used — but unlike Mace and Mace’s South Asian friend Vigneshwar Paduar (Usman Ally), he just doesn’t care. That’s one of the many ways Diaz is a good writer — he’s giving his character the agency to be a selfish jerk who’s in it for the money.
PHILLIPS: As a writer, I’m in love with the dramatic text. So though I miss being able to see stagings right now, I think these virtual readings have afforded me the opportunity to really delve into a text and pick apart the intricacies.