When Pepe the Frog was coopted by the alt-right last year, the cartoon amphibian’s creator didn’t exactly think, “Feels good, man.” Instead, he set out on a quest to reclaim Pepe. That effort has now inspired a “meme musical experience” titled Passion of the Frog, in which the internet’s favorite hate symbol goes looking for love.
The play, staged last week at Williamsburg bar Muchmore’s, was inspired by #SavePepe, a hashtag started by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in October of 2016, in response to the repurposing of Pepe as a pro-Trump icon.
When Matt Furie, the artist who in 2005 first brought Pepe to life as a character in his online comic, saw how the alt-right was using the frog, he reached out to the ADL for help. Lucas Brahme told us in an email that he “wanted to support their specific #SavePepe initiative”– hence his play, Passion of the Frog.
Brahme said that he knew his way around memes, but had to research the alt-right, and turned to Angela Nagle’s book, Kill All Normies. “Her perspective on the antisemitic, misogynistic, and faux-ironic nature of the alt-right gave me a much clearer way to go about writing the dialogue for most every character,” said Brahme.
Brahms noted that he doesn’t “align with everything the ADL stands for,” but he sympathized with the #SavePepe initiative, given the co-opting of the artist’s work and the use of Pepe as an anti-semitic symbol.
In the play, Pepe, played by writer-actor-comedian Sam Weiss, is forced to face the mortality of his internet fame, when he’s stricken with an illness that causes his meme magic to drain away. Hoping to save his friend, Drake leads Pepe into the dark web in search of a cure. Here, Pepe meets the sirens of the alt-right: Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Tomi Lauren. They introduce Pepe to a dark truth: People can extend their 15 minutes of fame by appealing to the lowest common denominator.
With assistance from Drake (not to mention an appearance by a gun-toting Kermit), Pepe is able realize there are more important things than fame, but not before it’s too late.
“As the process of developing this play continued, it became clear that it is now impossible to ‘save’ Pepe from being recognized as a hate symbol,” said Brahme. “The irreversibility of the internet is something we all need to take note of.”