Hard to believe that it has been over a decade since we were first introduced to “hope.” Hope, of course, was President Obama’s endearing campaign slogan for a better, more purple America where compromise rules the day. However naïve that thought may be, it is worth mentioning that Obama’s 2008 political campaign was victorious not only in the reliable blue states but also in places like Indiana and North Carolina. At the backbone of this movement were thousands of political operatives and volunteers strategically placed in electoral battlegrounds. Fueled both by hope and fear (as well as gallons upon gallons of coffee), they knocked on doors, made phone calls and ignored their health all in the pursuit of a better America.
Aurin Squire’s “Obama-ology” is set within one such world; specifically, East Cleveland, where the Obama campaign ran a slick get-out-the-vote operation that helped propel him to the White House. A dying and neglected chunk of Rust Belt America, East Cleveland is a predominately African American enclave with a history of lackluster voting turnout. Enter Warren, a gay African American Buddhist from a conservative middle-class background who often struggles more than his white counterparts at relating to members in the community. His identity, though, is never questioned by the local police who pull him over at an alarming rate. Same for the shopkeepers who repeatedly ask if he needs any help while closely following him up and down the aisles.
A coming-of-age story, “Obama-ology” connects well in its depiction of Warren’s emotional growth. Played with a driving and endearing intensity by David Guiden, Warren matures on stage from a smug, condescending young man to a more nuanced and accepting individual able to relate to a wide variety of characters. The ensemble cast also consistently impresses as they effortlessly inhabit roles that include everyone from seasoned political operative to menacing police officer to volunteers forced to choose between servicing themselves or their political beliefs. Especially haunting is Tuesdai B. Perry’s portrayal of a volunteer whose tragic history with the police results in a later panic attack when pulled over late at night. Perry also excels in the role of Cee-Cee, a strong-willed person with a learning disability who resents Warren’s attempts at improving her lot in life.
Credit also to Bria Walker whose direction allows the cast room to develop their roles. A two-act play, the production never appears rushed. It is funny in moments, but also poignant and believable. I wish the story presented more of Warren’s familial history. A later scene involving Warren facing his family appeared disjointed from the rest of the production. The play as a whole, though, is a thoughtful and well-conceived portrayal of a more innocent time in political history.
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, Noyes Cultural Art Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston, (847)866-5914, $30, fjtheatre.com. Through November 25.