On a Tuesday night in the Austin Playwrights Studio, Adrienne Dawes is corralling her ensemble for sketch show Doper Than Dope. “Okay guys, this is our first run through, but you need to be on it. There’s press in the room!” She nods in my direction, but the added pressure makes me laugh. Even in their first run-through, the ethnically diverse cast of Doper Than Dope is running circles around most other sketch shows. Dawes doesn’t mess around.
Sketch comedy is tough to do well. The writing must be concise, tight, and pointed. The performances need a certain electricity — a definitive pop — lest all that perfect writing fall flat. Doper Than Dope brings all this in spades, with tight and precise direction from Dawes, a playwright, director, and native Austinite who’s emerged as a real theater force in Austin the last few years.
In 2015, her play Am I White? won a B. Iden Payne Award for Outstanding Original Script as well as the David Mark Cohen New Play Award from Austin Critics Table. This year, two separate productions she helmed with her production company, Heckle Her, (the first iteration of Doper Than Dope and Love Me Tinder, a musical sketch revue) took home multiple BIP Awards. And watching the show, it’s easy to see why.
Doper Than Dope takes its cues from '90s sketch mainstay In Living Color, with smart, incisive racial satire among fun parodies. They’ve got an ode to Sonic’s food set to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” a historically accurate trailer for Disney’s Pocahontas, and a spoof of Dangerous Minds. And that’s before they bring out larger-than-life characters, like veteran standup Maggie Maye’s Big Rhonda.
But don’t think this sketch show rests on the nostalgia factor — it’s coming in with a strong, always funny point of view informed by our present political climate. There’s a take on racial profiling through the lens of Nickelodeon’s Are Your Afraid of the Dark? and oblique references to Richard Spencer and the rise of white nationalism in the U.S. In an early sketch — “Dope 4 Real Wild Style” — Kenah Benefield and Taji Senior-Gipson host a teen show as though it’s 1996, but with every hopeful line about a '90s-era policy, they cast a knowing look to the audience, letting that vintage hopefulness drip with irony.
Doper Than Dope's whole ensemble pops off the stage, even in the initial stumble-through that I watched. Every cast member possesses an energy and a range for characters that’s hard to come by, and audiences have taken notice: their summer run sold out weeks in advance. It’s high-energy and hysterical, all with a point of view that invites you into the conversation.
I’d list the particularly standout performance, but it’s impossible. Let’s just say no member of this cast is dead weight. Everyone has their moment in the sun, and each shines. And the show doesn’t stop at the comedy, either. For the full In Living Color effect, Dawes also brought in resident DJ Mahealani and a fly girls dance team keeping the energy rolling between sketches. So don’t sleep on getting tickets. Spiderhouse Ballroom is a large venue, but there are only two performances.
The DTD crew return with all new material December 8 at 8 pm (ASL interpreted) and December 16 at 10 pm at the Spiderhouse Ballroom. Tickets are available here.