The American Black Box, written by Scott Pardue and directed by Vincent Scott, presents themes of racism, consumerism, and the effects of international politics on individual American lives. All of these concepts are important and relevant in today’s society. Unfortunately, the play does not deliver the necessary elements for truly compelling drama. The inciting action for the play is the discovery of the fact that a substantial amount of a weed-killing compound, a substance which can also be used to make dirty bombs, has gone missing. In light of the recent promotion of Yasser, a Syrian immigrant, a fellow employee begins to suspect foul play. He insinuates that Yasser is connected to the mislaid shipments, raising the possibility of terrorist ties.
The piece devolves from here. All of the characters, including Yasser, seem mere sketches instead of full-bodied, complex human beings. It is hard to care about or for these individuals, as it is always unclear what they want and how their specific motivations relate to the larger political themes at stake. Transitions between scenes cover significant expanses of time and, therefore, a great deal of information is omitted from the play’s actual plot. The audience is left to guess at these elusive details, leaving many of the play’s subplots – and even its main dramatic thrust – unsatisfying.
A key weakness in the work lies in its regular tangents from the main storyline. This often occurs because characters engage in speechmaking, rather than dialogue driven by character interaction. In a crucial questioning scene, for example, depicting Yasser being contained in a cell in an undisclosed location, his interrogator goes into what appears to be a poetic diatribe. Like a direct-to-audience monologue that Yasser gives earlier regarding bullies, the speech reflects on some interesting political ideas but does nothing to drive forward the play’s plot or overall dramaturgical construction. In addition, Gina, the wife of one of Yasser’s coworkers, gives a meaningful speech about materialism in light of the human condition. The monologue seems to be part of some other play, not directly corresponding to the driving forces at work here.
Discussions of boxes are used as a thought-provoking motif throughout the play, manifesting themselves in varying forms from cubicles to cribs to jail cells. However, like most of the play, this element has little payoff in the grand scheme of the work.
The American Black Box tackles some important themes about what means to be American. It would benefit, however, from some clearer structuring.