The year is 2063 and American President Thom Valentine—the first openly gay head of state—is facing some tough times.
A massive flood has submerged the Eastern seaboard, driving the population into the heartland. Its economy crippled, America accepts a financial bailout from the British and reverts to monarchial titles in deference. The White House leadership dons crowns and capes. The First Gentleman enjoys a salacious affair with the royal butler, who happens to be a human clone.
In the American West, clashes over Cotton XP, a newly discovered and highly lucrative natural resource, threaten imminent civil war. Lacking means for an army, America calls in the world’s greatest superpower—The United African Nations—to act as peacekeepers. But will the promised riches of Cotton XP turn these peacekeepers into conquerors?
And I haven’t even told you about the zombies yet.
Zombie: The American is poised to make its world premiere on May 25 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Written by playwright-in-residence Robert O’Hara and directed by artistic director Howard Shalwitz, Zombie bolsters Woolly’s reputation for audacious, in-your-face theater.
In Zombie, O’Hara—who received a $185,000 playwright grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund his work at the company—imagines a dystopic America: a third-world country, fallen from power and prominence and at the mercy of nations it formerly failed or screwed over. Faced with his country’s looming implosion, the President must decide whether to employ the Zombie Council to oust the peacekeepers, the cost of which, the Zombies warn, will be bloody.
A sweeping, ambitious political satire, Zombie leaves no contemporary American sin unpunished: foreign debt and government bail-outs, global warming and squandering of natural resources, oppression of gay and women’s rights, the tech industry’s obliteration of the labor market, starvation and genocide in the third world. You get the picture.
O’Hara’s principal focus is the greatest sin of America’s past—slavery and the ensuing centuries of racial disparity and discord. If the plot (a divisive civil war over cotton) and timestamp (the 200th anniversary of the American Civil War) weren’t dead giveaways, O’Hara’s sharpest barbs and most robust characters bear it out.
While Shalwitz admits the plot is “absurd,” he also promises the production will be a “spectacle” and “outrageously funny.” The play ultimately provokes serious questions about when America will claim the sins of its past—let its zombies out of the basement, so to speak. Whether or not we believe the country deserves it, we’ll laugh as O’Hara gives America its comeuppance, albeit uneasily.
Zombie marks the end of Woolly Mammoth’s 35th season, which was “focused on themes of revolution and change,” Shalwitz says. The season opened with playwright David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, a modern slant on the young French queen who, threatened by revolution by her starving subjects, insouciantly replied to, “Let them eat cake!”
“There were a lot of explicit and implicit references to America in [Marie Antoinette],” Shalwitz says. “So we had a season framed, first, by a queen from a century ago facing revolution” and, second, with Zombie’s reimagination of “the American presidency as a third-world monarchy.”
Marie Antoinette’s infamous quote, Shalwitz explains, became the thematic thread connecting the season’s productions. In the case of Zombie, of course, there would be one modification: “Let them eat brains!”
Zombie: The American opens at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company on May 25 and runs through June 21 ($20 to 68).