Hetain Patel’s American Man starts where his earlier solo American Boy ended: with Patel playing the character of “Real-Deal Spidey”, a nerdy young Mexican who uploads videos of himself dressed as Spider-Man. In American Boy, you could see how that costume became an imaginary second skin for a teenager to live in – and live up to. In American Man, the teenager has grown up. He has a girlfriend, a daughter and a job, and he peels off his costume to reveal a synthetic white membrane covering his entire body. In the adult world, he thinks, it’s white skin rather than a superhero disguise that can bestow special powers.
It’s a poignant and potent moment – one of few in the show. Real-Deal Spidey disappears from the story, and for the rest of the evening, Patel dons a “flesh-pink” trouser suit and flits between a series of gestural character cameos. An Indian mimics English accents from online instructional videos. A presenter introduces a female celebrity “who needs no introduction” by commenting solely on her appearance. A salesman pitches empowerment to women (“buy a cock”). There is a demonstration of alpha-male body posture (basically, be tall, wide or square).
Yes, they’re all views on – sometimes just displays of – sexism and racism, but where do they come from and where do they lead? Perhaps a bigger problem than the lack of depth or development is that the world has changed since Patel began this project. Here, he imagines a nightmare future in which Obama is head of “Apple Inc”, and promotes a programme for the self-actualisation of “authentic misogynists” in which they must first impersonate their enemy liberals. Sure, the scene shows how bullies can reframe themselves as victims, but who would bother going through such a programme now? That dystopia has been Trumped.
Though it brims with ideas, American Man rarely moves beyond exposition into insight, or indeed from the mind into the heart. For all his channelling of different personae, Patel doesn’t get beneath the skin of his subjects.