While the creative process is often explored in works of theatre and performance, the elitism of the arts gets a direct dressing down in new play SAMO Is Dead. Staging the dynamic between the arrogant, self-proclaimed young artist, Luke, played by Chris Rowe, the realistic yet complex waitress Beth (Sophie Peppernell), and the light-hearted but layered waitress Holly, played by Akala Newman, SAMO Is Dead is inspired by the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat as it delves into the uncertainties of youth.
Staged in the dingy and desolate café where Beth tirelessly works, the arrogant Luke continuously shuts down any insight from Beth, who exposes the fallibility of the struggling young artist, toiling away in this nondescript cafe. While Beth is no more likeable, her short temper cannot hide her own flaws, it is the blind, self-assurance of youth that is getting skewered here.
The quick dialogue between Beth and Luke showcases their their contrastic character through dry wit unusually symbiotic humour. “Do you ever feel like your dead?” Luke asks. “No,” Beth brutally responds. Never veering off into jargon, ideas such as existentialism are explored through subtle humour.
Capturing the feeling that somehow arts students with a decent grade in one philosophy subject are instant experts in all critical thought, we watch with joy as Beth brutally shut-downs down Luke’s illusions of grandeur. The ghostly figure of SAMO, Basquiat’s artistic alter-ego, played by Theo Murray, haunts Luke, who is all ego, and frighteningly reminds us of the perils of our own anxieties. Looming over the stage and dressed in black with a menacing monotonal voice, SAMO materialises anxieties which can sometimes stem from the dangerous obsessive tendencies of our minds. Beth and Holly’s banter with Luke as he is suffering these visions helps alleviate the anxiety of these darker ideas, reminding us of the complexity and resilience of the human mind – especially its capacity for humour in even the darkest of times.
SAMO, a shortening of “same old shit”, that was a motif during Basquiat’s career in 1970s-1980s New York, is a reminder of the demons of success. One of the play’s most remarkably performed scenes was one of its biggest questions: What is art? For Luke it is originality, profound meaning, and response (but only from the right type of people, not from waitresses). But of course, such art can start to feel very similar, its joy lost in the search for the new. Herein lies the engaging premise on which the play rests; how art’s hypocritic claim to accessibility can be sustained amid privilege and high culture exclusions.
Luke displays a comic arrogance in believing his work to be entirely unique and the most honest representation of the world. Yet, his obsession with uniqueness is also what leads him to assert the superiority of his own imaginings. It is also what leads to his obsession with success. Masked behind claims to artistic immersion, Luke’s longing for power, expressed in lines such as “I wanted to be the chosen one so badly. Can I still be?”, grips these contradictions.
Note: SAMO is DEAD creative team-members Jodi Rabinowitz and Dani Maher are contributors to Backyard Opera.