“Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” at Kirk Douglas Theatre

theatre review

PHOTO: Craig Schwartz | The South Pasadenan | From L to R: Samantha Miller, Coral Peña, Lilian Rebelo, and Ashley Brooke in "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre August 20 through September 17, 2023, produced in association with IAMA Theatre Company.

Electricity was in the air on opening night of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday. This Center Theatre Group collaboration with IAMA Theatre Company marks the first production under the auspices of CTG’s new artistic director, Snehal Desai – and the audience was here for it – loudly cheering him on as he introduced himself and IAMA artistic director, Stephanie Black, at the top of the show. Formerly the artistic director of East West Players, Desai views himself as “a community builder through the arts” and Los Angeles theatre audiences are very excited and hopeful about what his vision will bring to one of the largest theatre organizations in the city.

“Our Dear Dead Drug Lord”, written by Alexis Scheer and directed by Lindsay Allbaugh, takes us to the quirky treehouse/clubhouse of a small high school girls’ club called “Dead Leaders Club” in an upper middle class neighborhood in Miami. The time, at the start of the play, is just before the 2008 presidential election between John McCain and Barack Obama. It’s a very interesting moment where being a teenager, post 9/11 uncertainty, Miami politics, childhood trauma, and figuring out how to walk in the world as a young woman, all collide in a boiling pot of twisty, riveting storytelling.

PHOTO: Craig Schwartz | The South Pasadenan | Lilian Rebelo and Coral Peña in “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The club has been suspended at their private school, pending a review, for choosing notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, as their focus of study for the year and the girls are readying a presentation to advocate for reinstatement. They meet each week and once a month, they do séances using a Ouija board where they try to contact spirits, in this case, Pablo Escobar.

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The three main club members, per their Quija board given names, are Pipe, the daughter of Republican Cuban-Americans, who is somewhat the leader and alpha club member. The treehouse is in the backyard of her upscale home and we find out she is mourning the loss of her younger sister. Played by Lilian Robelo, who imbues Pipe with a certain cockiness that belies her pain and brings a passionate defiance to the role.

Ashley Brooke is delightfully nerdy as Zoom, the youngest at 15, who is the most innocent and invested in the possibilities of the séances. Samantha Miller, recently seen as Lil’ Mama in the Pasadena Playhouse production of “Stew” brings sassiness, bravado, and charm as Squeeze, and Coral Peña is awkwardly sensual as newcomer to the group, Kit.

The girls are all navigating life as young women in America, each with their own traumas, as they come to grips with what they can and can’t control – from their friendships and relationships, to their parents, their school administrators and even the dead.

PHOTO: Craig Schwartz | The South Pasadenan | From L to R: Coral Peña, Lilian Rebelo, Ashley Brooke, and Samantha Miller in “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.

It all culminates with them going all in on a séance that will finally make contact with this drug lord, but at what price and to what end? There is an entire scene spoken in mostly Spanish that I think doesn’t work for the audience – well, any audience member who doesn’t speak Spanish anyway. We were given translations after the show which helped me to understand the meaning of the scene but it would have been nice to discover that meaning in the moment. The gut punch of it is taken away from us.

The cast is uniformly fantastic with each actor working intensely to bring these characters to life in a vibrant, thoughtful examination of how we face our demons both real and imagined. What began as lighthearted teasing and out-daring one another slowly evolves into something darker, something instinctual, even ancestral, that will definitely leave you thinking.

“Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” runs through September 17 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City 90232. Tickets available at CenterTheatreGroup.org, (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre at 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (open 2 hours prior to curtain)

Content warning: This production contains sexually suggestive language, references to suicide, and depictions of drug use, extreme physical violence, and self-harm.