Playwright Kristoffer Diaz steps into the ring
“This is earlier than I usually get into trouble in an interview,” says playwright Kristoffer Diaz with a sheepish smile. Indeed, it’s not even halfway through an amiable lunchtime chat before he’s holding forth on the divide between labor and management and talking about how his play “has a problem with old wealth.”
Those aren’t the comments he expects to ruffle feathers, though. It’s when Diaz is asked to compare his work in the theater with the often thankless toil of the professional wrestlers who are the subject of his 2009 play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” which will have its Los Angeles debut at the Geffen Playhouse on Sept. 7.
“There’s an independent wrestling scene, but the WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] is essentially a monopoly,” says Diaz, a pro wrestling fan since childhood. “And as a wrestler, you can say, ‘This place is racist, homophobic, and on top of that it’s a bad version of what I want to do.’ But what are you going to do? You either go to a smaller arena, or you stay in the big time and you’re complicit.”
So how is the professional theater like professional wrestling? “If you’re a playwright who doesn’t want to do people-on-a-couch plays, there are not a lot of avenues,” Diaz says. “You can go and do television, or you can stay and fight with organizations that aren’t really equipped to support work by people of color or experiment with form.”
These aren’t the sour grapes of a sore loser. “Chad Deity” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2010, and the Geffen production is the play’s fifth in two years. Diaz says, “I’ve been lucky. I don’t how long this will last, but I’ve bought myself maybe two or three years of being able to literally do whatever I want to do in the theater, outside of financial constraints.” A raft of commissions — from L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, New York’s Public Theater, Chicago’s Teatro Vista, Dallas Theatre Center and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — certainly doesn’t hurt.
Nor is Diaz’s observation the familiar lament of a long-excluded minority. To Diaz, the diversity that’s missing from too many American stages, not to mention the audiences, is as much about age and aesthetics as ethnicity.
“More than people of color, I’m talking about young people,” says Diaz, a 35-year-old New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent. “People under 40 are the ones I’m interested in getting into the room. And I’ve tried to write those people-on-a-couch plays, but I just can’t do it.”
“Chad Deity” is a bold step away from kitchen-sink realism, to be sure. A smart cocktail of hip-hop-inflected monologue, multimedia and enough honest-to-God smackdown action to keep the adrenaline flowing, the play follows the attempts of a third-tier wrestler, Macedonio “Mace” Guerra, to make his way in a medium with little room for self-expression, let alone diversity.
“I had Chavo Guerrero in mind a lot when I was writing this play,” says Diaz of the Mexican American wrestler. “Chavo’s job was to make guys look better than they were, which meant he lost a lot. And he was so skilled at it that there weren’t a lot of guys who could play that same fall-guy role for him so that he could be the champion.”
If Guerrero inspired “Chad Deity’s” aggrieved-working-man point of view, the play’s edge of anger was sparked by another source. In 2004, WWE introduced Muhammad Hassan, a kaffiyeh-wearing villain who would ostentatiously “pray” to Allah before matches. Openly set up as a bad guy to be knocked down by such lily-white fan favorites as Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels, Hassan was booted from “Smackdown!” when one of his elaborate pseudo-terrorist skits coincided with the London transit bombings in summer 2005.
“That more than anything drove me to write this play,” says Diaz of the Hassan debacle, which sharply dramatized professional wrestling’s willingness to exploit its audience’s fears and prejudices. In “Chad Deity,” it’s an Indian American hip-hop kid from Brooklyn who, once in the clutches of a WWE-like corporation, becomes the Fundamentalist, with a turban and a super-kick the announcers call “The Sleeper Cell.”
But as if he’s not content with this fictionalized version or worried that his audience won’t believe it, Diaz has his lead, Mace, repeatedly cite the real-life inspiration for this storyline, at one point instructing the audience, “Go home and Google Muhammad Hassan tonight. Please.”
Diaz said a dramaturge he worked with on “Chad Deity” called it “a hyperlink play”: The audience is given explanatory information in a break from the narrative the way readers can open hyperlinks in an online story for additional depth or detail.
In one scene, he said, “something’s happening, and then we mention the power-bomb,” a dangerous head-first body slam that often clinches a wrestling match. “We want the audience to ‘click’ on the power-bomb, so we break away and show them.”
Finding actors able to demonstrate real wrestling moves has been a challenge from the start. Chicago-based director Edward Torres, who helmed the original production there as well as off-Broadway and now at the Geffen, remembers reading the play as a judge in a competition and thinking, “It’s a great piece — I’d really love to see who’s going to do it.”
A year later Torres, a director with the Latino theater company Teatro Vista, was the lucky one shepherding “Chad Deity” from a well-received early reading to a full production at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater.
“Taking the next step into production meant going all the way with it,” Torres says. “These wrestlers are Adonises; they’re huge. I thought, Where am I going to find actors who can at least meet that halfway and be able to deliver Kris’ writing?” The answer: “We did a nice, long search, and we got a cast that understands this world. We also asked for an extra week and a half of rehearsal, just to learn the moves.”
The three leads from Chicago — Desmin Borges, Terence Archie and Usman Ally — stayed with the play in New York and L.A. And though the L.A. run is sure to raise the film/TV profile of the actors and of the playwright, Diaz has no plans to abandon the live arts any time soon.
“Television has lapped theater in a lot of storytelling techniques — realism, depth of character, complicated storytelling,” says Diaz, citing such favorites as “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights.” “What we have that’s different in the theater is the audience in the space with us. And I’m not interested in ignoring the space between us.”