SAMO (pronounced same-o) is the creation of Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz, although Basquiat later claimed sole ownership whilst living on the streets of New York in 1976. SAMO is a pseudo-religious figure representative of the then-destitute artist Basquiat’s rebellion against the “same old shit” he was seeing in society around him. Drawing heavy influence from this work is the play SAMO is DEAD, written by Jodi Rabinowitz and directed by Sophia Bryant, and made possible by the USU Bright Ideas program. The set features epithets and poems scrawled upon the walls of a bedroom, whilst hanging overhead is a huge mural in the style of Basquiat’s later art, produced for galleries and studios. SAMO himself even makes an appearance as a hallucination that haunts the waking mind of ‘artist’ Luke. However, this is where any comparison with the work of one of America’s all-time greats must end.
SAMO is DEAD is a deeply flawed work. The play’s opening scenes fail to establish any kind of stakes for the ensuing narrative and while the audience is given a clear sense of Luke’s character, it is more a product of him adopting a stereotype than insightful action or direction. While Chris Rowe gives a solid performance as Luke, a layabout white teen with aspirations of artistry, the lack of depth to his character robs any sense of engagement with the problems he presents. This is not helped by the fact that neither of the female characters stand up to him in a meaningful way. Beth, played by Sophie Peppernell, is the least stereotyped character, but the best opportunities for her development are stripped away in favour of expositional monologues and dialogue heavily lacking in subtext. Asking the audience to believe in the emerging friendship between her and Luke is undermined by their continual open conflict throughout. The closest the two come to an understanding occurs during the acid scene, but even this returns them to a state of hostility when Luke encounters the ghost-like SAMO, Theo Murray, and retreats to his normal pretentious self.
The SAMO ghost itself is an odd character, not least because the production seems to have missed an opportunity to cast the avatar of the proudly Haitian/Puerto Rican Basquiat as a person of colour. It appears to merely reflect a subconscious assemblage of fears and inadequacies that Luke carries at all times. Its presence seems largely irrelevant, serving only to remind the audience of Basquiat’s work despite it having little thematic importance to the play as a whole.
All of this plays out against a set which is interesting visually, but ill-conceived practically. The door to the café on the audience’s left requires actors to walk in an awkward loop whenever entering or exiting scenes. This becomes a problem when Luke, being chased by police, is forced to run in a frantic circle around a flat before ‘bursting’ into the café, adding a bizarre comic note to a scene which is arguably the play’s darkest.
The lack of forethought and refinement displayed here is perhaps the best measure of the work. There are certainly some interesting ideas buried in this script, but the flat dialogue and two beat narrative prevent anything of true substance breaking through to the audience. A more thorough process of script review and refinement may yet resuscitate SAMO, but for the time being this play remains dead in the water.