By Gaelyn Smith
This article was produced within the New Theater Critics project, a component of Day Eight’s 2023 arts journalism conference.
This article was originally published in DC Theater Arts here.
While physical newspapers have become a thing of the past, Sunday morning cartoons can make even the most serious adult become a kid again. In a few words scribbled beside colorful pictures, comic book artists and writers make astute and comical observations about the world around us.
This is the world of Drew Anderson and Dwayne Lawson-Brown’s new hip-hop musical, Push the Button, directed by Duane Richards II. A product of the Keegan Theatre’s Boiler Room Series, the show is a hilarious social commentary on power dynamics and the appearance of good versus evil in a world driven by spectacle.
The plot is simple. A button (yes, a large red button) gets pushed in a town that is very likely Washington, DC. Because of Villain’s history of pranking the town, he becomes the prime suspect. Of course, it does not help that Hero, whom everyone loves, says that he saw Villain commit the crime. But Journalist, a young woman with a unique relationship with the criminal justice system, sets out to find the truth. The themes in the show are reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s Nope, another post-pandemic look at our society’s obsession with sensationalism instead of seeking truth and understanding.
The show comes in at just about 55 minutes. The fast-paced and exciting performance will have children and adults alike wanting to know who pushed the button!
Push the Button is a different kind of musical. The show takes popular songs from the last two years and satirizes/parodies them to create new pieces that narrate the show’s plot. For example, “Villain Song” utilizes “XO Tour Llif3” by Lil Uzi Vert and “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish to allow Villian, played brilliantly by Tre’mon Kentrell Mills, to tell us about his history with crime and plead his innocence to Journalist (and us). In the “Trial Song,” Hero (played by the charming and funny Quincy Vicks) and Villain go back and forth about the events surrounding the pushing of the button over the Silk Sonic hit “Leave the Door Open.” The show was at its strongest in the moments when Vicks and Mills were on stage, separately and together.
Matthew J Keenan’s set design is perfect for a show that teeters on the edge of children’s theater. Different characters move the large button and other furniture on and off the stage when needed. As a result, the choreography by Ashanti Symone Branch, who also plays Journalist, shines. Projections, by Zavier Augustus Lee Taylor, give this story of good versus evil a cartoonish edge.
Because of the energy of the music and strong performances from Hero and Villain, it was easy to forgive specific technical and narrative issues. At moments, the music was louder than the microphones, making it difficult to hear the actors. When Hero and Villain were off stage, the show felt stagnant, and the songs seemed to summarize the dialogue rather than keep the story moving. However, if you are taking young children to see the show, that repetition will likely create a greater understanding of what they have just seen.
But the minor issues did not take the show down. The fun is infectious. The actors were having fun even when the story was not moving along. This show reminds me of what it was like to see theater as a young child for the first time. The lights, colors, costumes, and music were so much fun. Even for the hip-hop averse, it is difficult to avoid getting drawn into the story.
Push the Button invites us to consider how we can all be heroes. At the end of the show, Journalist lists things like “helping your mother with the groceries” as examples of small ways we can all be heroes. In a world where critical thinking skills seem to be dwindling, Push the Button is a hero, reminding us to think critically about how we feed into harmful power dynamics and about the information we consume daily.