In 438 BCE, Euripides won second prize at the Dionysia theater festival with his strange play Alcestis, an uncomfortably ambivalent story about a queen who volunteers to die in her husband's place and is then wrestled back into the land of the living by a hungover Hercules.
The mechanics behind the plot are ridiculous: Apollo is exiled from Olympus, has a nice time with King Admetus and his wife, Queen Alcestis, and makes a deal with the Fates (in some versions, he gets them drunk first) to extend the king's life if he can find someone else to take his ticket to the underworld. Nobody volunteers to die except the queen, who says she can't bear the thought of living without her man and doesn't want her children to grow up without a father. (Then, as now, single motherhood gets a bum rap.) Hercules shows up, gets drunk, irritates the servants, learns the queen is dead, and goes to fetch her. Because she returns mute, it's impossible to tell whether she's happy to be back.
Is She Dead Yet?, a bumpy world premiere by Brandon J. Simmons, updates the story with an au courant twist. As a breathless TV reporter informs us in the opening monologue, Aretha, who's married to the mayor of Mini-Salt-Lake-in-the-North-Woods, is about to die. She's also the last black person on earth. Townspeople and reporters crowd the mayor's front lawn—partly because Aretha married into a celebrity family (her husband's aunt is the president of Planet America), and partly because the white world is eager to start forgetting about race.
In one early exchange, the president of Planet America (Hannah Victoria Franklin) and an aide named Janice (Carol Thompson) discuss their imminent future:
Janice: Don't you think the people will be upset?
President: The people are always upset, Janice... Why?
Janice: The thing with the... thing...
President: Oh, you mean because at some point in the next 20 minutes there won't be any more black people?
President: And we'll soon live in a world of unremitting whiteness, a world in which our power and privilege will never again be questioned?
Janice: Uh... yes.
President: No, Janice, I don't think anybody's gonna give a damn.
The president is wrong—Aretha's death sends the white world, which understood itself only in counterpoint to blackness, into a state of shock. Family members forget each other's names (for reasons that the play doesn't fully elaborate), and the white people start turning on each other. "Now with all the blacks gone, being an intern has gotten a lot harder, you know?" says the mayor's maid (Thompson again, brilliantly forlorn in both roles). "I used to get paid. And there were fewer beatings." She wonders if death wouldn't be so bad after all. "Stupid blacks! They get all the breaks!"
In its best moments, Is She Dead Yet? is viscerally discomforting. Aretha (Yesenia Iglesias) doesn't speak a word throughout the play but is surrounded by white people who just won't shut up—especially about her. As she lies dying, her bereft motormouth of a husband (Alex Matthews) tries to process his feelings in a jittery monologue that lurches from adoring her to hating her to ordering her to keep living. "There are just no words," he pants before prattling on some more. "I'm utterly speechless. I mean, this is literally the worst thing that's ever happened. To me." But in its weaker moments, the play veers into unnecessary portentousness—like when the chorus of neighbors begins chanting verses at the mayor that sound like a mash-up of Euripides and Othello: "Bear it like a king," "Her guilty existence stained your bed, and your hands will ne'er be clean," and so on. (Simmons both wrote and directed the play. It might have benefited from a second pair of eyes.)
Simmons began working on Is She Dead Yet? last summer, when protests over a "yellowface" production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado—which featured no Asian actors—kicked off a citywide conversation about race and representation in theater. While people debated about artists of color, Simmons decided to write a play about whiteness and white fragility—the notion that since most white people didn't grow up thinking about racism on a daily basis, they tend to get defensive and fall apart when confronted with the subject.
Simmons calls the play a "white comedy," but its conclusion is the most poignantly tragic moment of the play. (Spoiler alert.) The Hercules figure (Franklin again—nobody in Seattle can play a contemptuous warrior quite like her) drags Aretha back from the dead strapped to a dolly and wearing a hood, looking like someone just exhumed from Abu Ghraib. "There are no words!" the mayor bleats, and keeps on talking, as the white townspeople, their identity restored, dance jubilantly to John Lennon's "Oh Yoko!" Aretha starts talking, urgently trying to tell them something, but nobody's listening.