BBC America: August Coronavirus Report with Amelia Wilkinson, which premiered on Friday, aimed for biting political satire. The result was a convoluted take on power and collective tragedy.
On Friday, Columbia’s Oscar Hammerstein Center for Theatre Studies welcomed the premiere of BBC America: August Coronavirus Report with Amelia Wilkinson, a short audio play by Columbia MFA candidate Alle Mims. The audio play was part of the fourth day of PlaySonos, a theatre festival premiering 10 short audio plays from November 7 to 18.
Organized by David Henry Hwang, Pulitzer Prize finalist and Concentration Head of Playwriting at Columbia’s School of the Arts, PlaySonos is the university’s first audio play festival, featuring playwrights from Columbia’s MFA program. According to Hwang, the festival’s central goal is to empower students to “create theatre that goes beyond the proscenium” through a “digital theatrical environment that was ‘rediscovered’ during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Friday’s play was written by Alle Mims (Columbia School of the Arts), a New York-based writer and performer and current candidate in Columbia’s MFA playwriting program. This performance was directed by Spencer Whale and featured voice acting from New York-based actors and real-life podcast co-hosts Victoria Pero and Amanda Whiteley.
The play, which runs about 15 minutes, is a political satire following fictional BBC America radio host Amelia Wilkinson (Pero) through a segment on the United States’ handling of the coronavirus pandemic through the month of August 2021. For much of her segment, Wilkinson interviews Zoe (Whiteley), an American teenager and vaccine clinic volunteer who provides Wilkinson with unique insight into Americans’ journey with COVID-19 vaccines. After her interview, Wilkinson makes what she calls “a special call to action for Americans” regarding COVID-19, wealth hoarding, and labor conditions.
At its best, August Coronavirus Report is a powerful indictment of the American government’s inability to mitigate COVID-19, and of American billionaires’ ability to profit off of the crisis. At its worst, it struggles to find its footing between the voice of Mims—an exhausted American punching up at policymakers—and Wilkinson, a brash and at times insensitive British radio host punching down at Americans impacted by the pandemic.
In the character’s stronger moments, Amelia Wilkinson offers a valid and important critique of the American government, and particularly of Republican leaders, for their unwillingness to properly mitigate the pandemic when they had the chance. In one of the few areas where Mims’ satire really works, Wilkinson pokes fun at the karmic COVID-19 diagnoses of Republican leaders like Lindsey Graham, pausing for her own fit of laughter while the audience is left to reflect on Graham’s opposition to mask mandates, COVID-19 vaccines, and universal healthcare.
However, August Coronavirus Report does not hold onto this thread of successful satire for long. Far too much of the play relies on the notion that the British government’s kinder treatment of its own citizens somehow makes Amelia Wilkinson morally superior (the most intelligent and unproblematic of radio hosts.) Wilkinson opens the play by warning that “statistics in this broadcast may be disturbing to those of us with universal healthcare,” and throughout the following segment, we get the sense that she views this as a moral failing on the part of the American people.
Had it been written with more nuance, perhaps Wilkinson’s superiority complex could have been an interesting commentary on the harmful misconception that a lack of government support is somehow a testament to the moral inferiority of the American people. Instead, Wilkinson’s sense of British superiority in a report on the American cost of COVID-19 comes off as more tone-deaf than funny or relatable. As the audience, we’re never quite sure if Wilkinson, or Mims, are in on that part of the joke.
The play particularly struggles when it introduces Zoe, who inexplicably spends her interview offering misinformation about the vaccine and sympathy for anti-vaxxers. While we as the audience may afford August Coronavirus Report plenty of liberty for crediting itself as satire, the choice to present Zoe—a vaccinated teenager volunteering in a vaccination clinic—as wildly misinformed and willfully ignorant convolutes the target of Mims’ criticisms, shifting from a purposefully incompetent government to a general “American people” who are equally at fault for a lack of effective COVID-19 mitigation. If Zoe is as much a target of criticism as someone like Lindsey Graham, who is to blame for the cost of the pandemic? The American government? Anti-vaxxers? Vaccinated Americans making an effort to get others vaccinated? In an attempt to make a pointed critique of anti-vaxxers through Zoe’s interview, Mims misses the mark and falls into tired comedic tropes of British moral superiority and punching down at “uninformed” young people. If writing Zoe as stupid was part of some larger joke, it fell flat.
Perhaps if even for a moment, Wilkinson had been taken off of her all-knowing pedestal—if one line of dialogue had made it clear that the sense of superiority she exhibits exists only in her head—Mims’ satire would have come through beautifully, and August Coronavirus Report could have been a compelling reflection on the cost of COVID-19 on all of us. Instead, Wilkinson spends most of the play straddling the line between brutal honesty and overwhelming insensitivity, making the audience question whether she believes the COVID-19 death toll is the fault of all American people.
It’s Wilkinson’s superiority complex that ultimately makes what could have been the play’s best moment—her impassioned plea for working-class Americans to join the October general strike—feel so out of place. In a rare moment of sincerity, Wilkinson breaks from her previous segment to rail against the cruel hypocrisy of billionaires hoarding and flaunting wealth while the rest of the country struggles to survive the pandemic. In one of the few times that the character approaches a topic with appropriate sensitivity, Mims makes space for Wilkinson to emphasize the human cost of COVID-19 against the wealth hoarding of Jeff Bezos and fellow billionaires, noting, “as bodies literally pile up, the richest Americans have not let that stop them from continuing to leech off the rest of the country.” For a moment, the monologue is striking: a powerful call to action for Americans to take a stand against the unbridled power of billionaire labor exploiters like Bezos. However, by the time she arrives at her plea, Wilkinson has spent so much of her broadcast implicitly blaming the American people for their own suffering that it’s hard to find her sincere. It’s in this final monologue where Mims’ missed mark is most evident; they’ve spent too much time allowing Wilkinson to shame Americans for the cost of COVID-19 to make her attempt at commiseration, or any kind of empathy, read successfully.
Throughout the 15-minute run time, we’re never quite sure if the character of Amelia Wilkinson is rooting for or against Americans. As listeners, we’re left just as unsure of whether to root for or against her. While the subject matter of August Coronavirus Report had the potential to make politically relevant commentary and a compelling call to action, its execution instead made it feel disappointingly muddled. Instead of feeling moved or inspired after listening to August Coronavirus Report, I expect audiences will leave, as I did, feeling confused, annoyed, and a little disheartened—not just with the American government’s mishandling of COVID-19, but with a playwright’s mishandling of such sensitive material.
The PlaySonos festival will continue through November 17, releasing a new short audio play written by a member of the Columbia community every day. All audio plays can be streamed here.
vaccination center via Bwarchives