Axis of Strategery: "Dispatches From the Dumb Decade" takes on the 2000s with song and humor


Dispatches From the Dumb Decade

Craig VanKempen plays the Sean Hannity-type talk-shot host George O’Bannon in Neighborhood Theatre Group's original musical Dispatches From the Dumb Decade. Photo by Crysta Coburn.

People sometimes struggle with how to refer to the first 10 years of the 21st century. The zeros? The aughts? Ypsilanti playwright A.M. Dean has put forth his own nickname for these transformative years in our nation’s history: The Dumb Decade.

Neighborhood Theatre Group’s original pop/rock musical Dispatches From the Dumb Decade follows its characters as they come of age in the age of 9/11, George W., Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Axis of Evil, "strategery," and the birth of fake news. All these things that I had put behind me were brought alive again through music and song. We were so innocent back then. 

I, too, was a young college student on September 11, 2001, a day that changed the trajectory of our country. I remember vividly how surreal and uncertain the world felt then and in the weeks -- months -- after. Like the characters portrayed on stage, I was also trying to figure out what life was all about, on my own, as an adult (2000 was the first election in which I voted), in this quickly changing landscape where anything -- good or terrifyingly bad -- could happen. For those who also lived through this time, the nostalgia factor is high.

Being a writer myself, I felt a strong connection to journalism student Nick Kowalski (Eric Hohnke). Nick is ready to take on the world with his laptop and the school paper. The ups and downs of Nick’s relationships with his friends Charlie (Mike Sandusky) and Reese (Alice Kepchar) and girlfriend Marie (Maegan Murphy) while narrowly pursuing his passion are believable and relatable. I’ve been there, and as one of the opening songs says, these are people that I knew. 

Brenda Marsh (Angela VanKempen), a professor and veteran reporter, reminds us of the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field, and of the allure and celebrity of right-wing cable TV pundits. George O’Bannon (Craig VanKempen) is a frighteningly realistic TV show host and political commentator calling his “warriors” to arms against such threats as the War on Christmas, acutely illustrating the zeitgeist of those post-9/11 days. 

You can’t have a political commentary on the early 21st century without at least mentioning former President George W. Bush, but Dispatches actually makes Bush one of the main character (Paul Popa), winning his first election with the song “This Is Gonna Be Easy.” There is also a character simply named Vice (also Craig VanKempen).

While Popa does quote Bush, and several period TV shows are briefly parodied, it is only for the song “History’s Hasty Return” that sound bites -- from the Twin Towers collapse -- are played, which is the only way I think that event could be handled. 

The swing actors include Marisa Dluge, Kylista Geiger, and Jae Feathers. The music is live, arranged and played the NTG House Band comprised of Charlie Worth, Tom Hett, and A.M. Dean, who also wrote the book, music, and lyrics. 

The set is simple, a small platform in the back center of the stage and two rotating platforms on either side, and it is peppered with nostalgia. I know people who had that same Usher poster taped to their dorm room walls. The one cell phone featured is a flip. My old iPod is on the program cover. 

But Dispatches is more than a trip down memory lane. It reminds the audience of crises we weathered, mistakes we (hopefully) learned from, and offers hope for the future. If we made it this far, we can keep going. 

Crysta Coburn is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library, freelance writer, editor, and author.

“Dispatches From the Dumb Decade” continues at the Robert C. Barnes Sr. MarketPlace Hall, 16 S. Washington St., Ypsilanti, at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday through March 10. For tickets, visit