There’s a scene near the end of Julia Cho’s Office Hour in which the audience is plunged into darkness and surrounded by incredibly lifelike, visceral, 360-degree gunshots for what seems like an eternity. In reality, it’s less than a minute. All kudos to Bray Poor’s sound design, but in this country in this year, it was deeply uncomfortable – so much so that I put my hands around my head and crouched down in my chair, just in case. With the Las Vegas concert shooting a mere 33 days in the past, I could not have sat through this interlude in Cho’s play and not questioned its purpose. That the Sutherland Springs shooting occurred 15 hours after I left the theatre only intensified my query. The prevalence of gun violence in the United States is not, however, the focus of Cho’s narrative..
Office Hour concerns an Asian-American adjunct professor, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), at an unnamed college who is urged by her Caucasian and African-American colleagues, David (Greg Keller) and Genevieve (Adeola Role), respectively, to speak to a “trouble” student. He’s not troubled, he’s trouble, as David takes pains to differentiate. In fact, David and Genevieve think this student, Dennis, is “a classic shooter,” based on the graphic nature of the writing he has done in his screenwriting and poetry classes and the fact that he wears a hoodie and sunglasses at all times. It’s not apparent why they think Gina can unlock whatever dark force holds sway over Dennis until the second scene, when he shows up for her office hour and we see that he, too, is Asian-American. This racism on David’s and Genevieve’s parts made me think the play would be about teachers of other races profiling and dismissing Dennis based on his otherness. It isn’t.
Cho takes us through Dennis’ meeting with Gina in something close to real time. Where she skewers this, though, is in her refractions of that time: events occur, often huge, shocking events, only to have the play break apart, jump back in time, and erase what just occurred. It happens several times and its purpose isn’t something I can claim to understand. The first time it happens, early in their meeting, Dennis pulls out a gun and shoots Gina. This is obviously a manifestation of her nervousness based on her colleagues’ assessment. But as the play goes on and these refractions spin out wildly into Dennis throwing himself out the window, Gina shooting Dennis, and Gina, Dennis, and David shooting themselves, the impact is diluted as the logical connection to character and subtext is removed. By the time Gina, Dennis, and David are crouching behind an overturned table, shielding themselves from unseen external gunfire, the gimmick is tired and its impact has waned.
It’s at this point that the audience is subject to many, many rounds of gunfire. It comes from behind, beside, above, and in front of you. I don’t consider myself to be a “wimp” or a “snowflake,” but after the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre shooting in 2012 and with each successive attack, I will cop to being hyper aware of the risk I take going to a movie or seeing a play. I can’t be the only one who thinks about this – many theatres inspect your bag as you enter – and it felt like Cho and director Neel Keller were exploiting this uneasiness.
I’m latching onto less than a minute of this play, but it’s a pivotal minute, and is the culmination of the method of storytelling Cho has employed. The deepest fears of these characters are physicalized and then wiped clean over and over, and then it happens to the audience. It’s bone-chilling, and, I guess, effective if that’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s also in very bad taste. Shootings like Las Vegas or at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester are acts of terrorism because they make people scared to do things they enjoy. Office Hour capitalizes on this fear for its own gain.
Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t gain anything. The play is muddied from the start of the office hour. Gina is massively unprofessional (she shares personal anecdotes about her failed marriage and sits on a table with her leg stretched out suggestively toward her student, among other missteps) and it is never acknowledged in the play. She routinely weeps and makes Dennis’ situation about herself. She asks him if he’s ever been touched and I found myself hoping she was thinking he’d been molested instead of asking if he’s a virgin (she wasn’t). Dennis leaves the room unchanged after what was, for both parties, an extremely painful, emotionally fraught hour. If nothing is different, why does this play exist?
The only answer I can land on is the shock value of Cho’s refractions. There are many live blanks fired and in the small space of the Martinson theatre at the Public, each and every one is powerful. The play is structured around these regressions and erasures. The characters’ shared racial identity is only briefly discussed and has no repercussions on the plot. What’s left is a series of gunshots puncturing holes in a play.
Office Hour runs to December 3, 2017. More production info can be found by clicking here.