What happens when four black actors get stuck in a time loop auditioning for the same bit part?
It begins with a scene that's all too familiar: four everyday working black actors arrive at an audition to discover the part is a single line spoken by a "friend of drug dealer," no backstory or originality required. But it's not just the lack of interesting roles, or their fellow actors trying out for the part—all good friends at this point—that feel familiar, but the world itself that's repeating. Allen, Greg, Charles and Pete are trapped in a time loop, repeating the same audition over and over until they finally become the stereotype Hollywood wants them to be.
Room 4 is the creation of comedic playwright duo Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed, currently playing at the People's Improv Theater in New York. This compact performance is packed with laughs and groan-worthy moments alike, and though it sometimes strays a little too far into the realm of improv, where once someone onstage suggests a fact to be true everyone else runs with it without question, "We're caught in a time loop!" is a fantastic place to build from.
The play explores the archetypes of roles available for black actors that you may not have been conscious of before, from drug dealer and "wise janitor man" to young men obsessed with chicken in McDonald's commercials. Temesgen Tocruray lights up the stage as the magical wise janitor, as hilarious in his nonsensical anecdotes as he is foreboding of what may lie ahead for the four young men if they do not escape the time loop.
Where Room 4 moves beyond sketch and into theater is in its characters' diversity of reactions to the same situation, each expanded into its own iteration of the time loop. From Greg's (Eric Lockley) conflicted feelings about being the best at getting cast as drug dealers and inspirational football players to Charles' (Tristan Griffin) fear of not being "black enough" to embody the roles casting directors want him to play, each actor exposes the confusion and the humor of being stuck in an industry that exploits them. Rounding out the quartet is the collected, resigned energy of leader Allen (Anthony Franqui) and the uncertain outrage of Pete (Ryan Johnson).
It shouldn't need to be said, but Marina & Nicco manage to create four fully fleshed out and distinctly different characters, despite their shared race and profession, without turning the men into stereotypes of themselves. And it is clear how rare of a situation this is when contrasted with the director and casting assistant of the TV show, who in their only real substantial moment on stage are portrayed by two literally identical sock puppets—manipulated by black actors. Meanwhile, the scenes of everyday normal conversation leading up to the police confrontations about the drug dealer friend are perfect interludes, highlighting what is so often left out of the story when black men are forced to play only one role.
Room 4 has great sympathy for those actors who can't quite refuse to play the game of pleasing and appeasing the casting directors, but simultaneously celebrates rebellion when it happens. The moral of the story is clear—black actors are complex, they are not interchangeable and they cannot simply abide by the status quo if they ever want to find better roles for themselves (that aren't in The Lion King).
So what is an actor who wants to change the system to do? He can help put on a clever and hilarious piece of indie theater exploring the problems he faces, for one, and show audiences just how much he can do.
Room 4 plays at the People's Improv Theater through October 7.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.