Pegasus Players

By definition, Pegasus Players’ annual Chicago Young Playwrights Festival is as much a social endeavor as an artistic one. The program’s stated primary goals are “to teach the basics of theatre to . . . teens in Chicago’s urban population who might not receive much exposure to the performing arts,” “to provide a vehicle for youth to voice their concerns,” and “to promote literacy.” This isn’t a professionally oriented preparatory program with participants carefully selected on the basis of resumes, writing samples, and grade point averages; it’s an open-to-anyone competition designed to stimulate as much participation as possible.

What does this mean from a theatergoer’s point of view? In the case of this year’s three winning one-acts, chosen from 113 submissions and currently on view in an evening-long production at Pegasus, it means that these writers are writing because they have something to say. These scripts aren’t the calculated crowd pleasers one encounters from budding commercial craftsmen trying to make their way onto the television fast track. For all their flaws–awkward structure, simplistic exposition, and overly obvious moralizing are the main ones–these plays exhibit a seriousness of purpose far different from the manipulative inanity that generally passes for teen-oriented (or for that matter adult-oriented) entertainment.

As a package, the three pieces present some interesting patterns. Two plays are about (and by) blacks, the third about (and by) a white. The two plays about blacks–There’s a Right and a Wrong Way to Love Someone, by Rimini Butler, and Go for the Bad, by Michael Horton–are both concerned with troubled families: in each, a teenage boy groping toward manhood is in conflict with his unmarried, confused mother, and the near-crisis family situation is eased by the appearance of a firm but kindly surrogate father who steers the boy in a positive direction.

There’s a Right and a Wrong Way to Love Someone, the clunkiest of the three plays technically, is also the most passionate. It tells of a mother, Maggy, who takes out her own frustrations over her dead-end life by smacking the hell out of her son Roy with belt buckles, broomsticks, and other odds and ends (when she’s not snorting coke in her bedroom). Though the situation is resolved too patly–the sudden involvement of Maggy’s mother and friends after years of neglect is too contrived to ring true–playwright Butler, a 17-year-old senior at Crane High School, disturbingly captures the convoluted emotions present in a loving but abusive family, especially the sense of ambivalence and passive participation on the part of the victim. Butler is also sensitive to the social and psychological factors affecting the mother, and if those factors are presented in too obvious a manner they at least offer valuable insight into the burdens the black community too often places on its women.

Go for the Bad, on the other hand, is sensitive to male psychology in its story of a kid trying to wriggle out of his street-gang affiliation, but its females are treated pretty two-dimensionally: there’s the sweet and sexy girlfriend, the concerned but ineffectual boozer of a mother, and the sharp-tongued, emasculating best friend of the girlfriend. This play–or is it just the director’s casting choices?–comes the closest of the three to commercial-minded dishonesty. The hero, Chance, just happens to be the prettiest guy on the stage, and his girlfriend Ke-Ke the prettiest girl; his fellow gang members are a pretty ugly lot, so we’re not surprised when he begins to move away from the guys and toward romantic involvement. The most interesting thing about this play by 16-year-old Horton, a student at Olive-Harvey Middle College, is the ambivalence and irony with which it treats Chance’s final decision to break from the gang and go to college: even though we know it’s the right choice, we can’t help but feel that Chance is a bit of a traitor to his buddies.

Both these plays address common social issues: crime, child abuse, street gangs, and alcohol and drug dependency. And in both, the hero’s escape route to a better life is higher education, which is seen as a precious and hard-won commodity. In sharp contrast, the third play–Voices, by Valerie Austin, an 18-year-old senior at Saint Ignatius High School–takes a pleasant, middle-class home life for granted. The hero’s parents are barely mentioned, much less seen; their presence is simply felt in the comfortable bedroom, complete with stereo system and private phone, in which the teenage protagonist spends much of his time. And his right to a good education is presumed–even though he is rejected by Yale as part of the plot.

Rather than facing threatening external circumstances, Voices’ David grapples with internal alienation: he feels like an outsider because of his increasingly serious hearing disability. Having always clung fiercely to his image of himself as not really deaf–he wasn’t born that way, his hearing was impaired as the result of tumors–David is freaked out when he contracts a disease that further erodes his hearing. He comes to resent his deaf best friend, and feels cut off from his hearing girlfriend–even though she has gone to the trouble of learning sign language to help their relationship. Like so many stories about outsiders, Voices wraps up into a gentle lesson about the rewards of trust and friendship–gentle and even amusing.

I say “even amusing” because if anything is in short supply in these three plays, it’s humor. The only really funny moments of the evening come less from the scripts than from the performances–especially those of Marco Antonio Coronado, a remarkably expressive actor, as the deaf friend of David; Evan Lionel as the high-spirited pal of Roy in There’s a Right and a Wrong Way; and Tom Dobrocky as the comically macho gang leader in Go for the Bad. It’s another interesting pattern that the second bananas have the best roles.

In any case, a deficient sense of comedy is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a play. Given the endless amount of anything-for-a-laugh garbage today’s adolescents–and grown-ups–are subjected to on TV and in movies, the sobriety that marks the winners of this year’s festival is an encouraging sign.