Three people kneeling, with man on left raising his arms in the air. A park bench is visible behind them.
Fifteen Minutes by Dalya Lessem Elnecave is one of three plays in Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 35th Annual Young Playwrights Festival. Credit: Anthony Robert La Penna

While many of us (perhaps too optimistically) planned to complete any number of creative projects over the course of pandemic isolation parts one, two, or—dare I say it—three, 300 Chicago-area high school students managed to write and submit one-act plays to Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 35th Annual Young Playwrights Festival. 

And three of those students—Laylah Freeman of Advanced Arts/Gallery 37, Sarah Lerner of Whitney Young Magnet High School, and Dalya Lessem Elnecave of Lane Tech College Prep—are beginning their 2022 by getting their winning submissions professionally produced and staged (virtually) by Pegasus. 

35th Annual Young Playwrights Festival
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In The Little Things, written by Freeman and directed by Christian Helem, it’s Christmas 1950, and Freeman’s protagonist, Minerva Spencer, is mourning her deceased high school boyfriend, Ben Crawford, while trying her best to dodge her mother’s attempts at holiday matchmaking.

The Little Things was inspired by my own experience of chasing my past,” Freeman said via e-mail. “During quarantine, I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect on the choices/decisions I made, the opportunities I did and did not take, and the people I kept around or left behind.”

While many of us experienced similar reflections during quarantine, Freeman’s ability to translate that relatable melancholia to the stage is an amazing example—and lesson—in the transmissibility and relatability of grief through art.

“I was filled with regret,” Freeman continued. “I wasn’t satisfied with how it all turned out and longed for the alternative; like my main character, one of those alternatives included a boy. I spent most of that time—the rest of my junior year and summer—harping on what would’ve happened if I wasn’t so closed off to things or didn’t let what others said or did define my actions. By the time my Theatre class got around to our playwriting unit, I realized how much time and energy I let slip away, and I didn’t want anyone else to make the same mistake I did.”

Pegasus Theatre Chicago, which has been a mainstay in the Chicago theater community for more than four decades, has its roots in the celebration and promotion of original student writings, initially performed by both faculty and students at the City Colleges beginning in June 1978. Today, the theater’s mission is to champion new, authentic voices and produce boldly imaginative theater primarily by and about Black, Indigenous, or other people of color. The Young Playwrights Festival, nearly as old as the theater itself (and the oldest competition of its kind in the United States), is an example of the community engagement that is essential to the theater’s ethos. 

“The festival starts in the schools across many different Chicago communities with students representing many different cultures,” Ilesa Duncan, executive/producing director at Pegasus Theatre Chicago, said via e-mail. 

“We have always worked to be a catalyst for young people to cultivate their creativity, experience professional theatre, and hopefully create the next generation of artists, producers, and arts leaders.”

Duncan is directing Have Faith, written by Lerner, in this year’s festival.   

“I’m always excited to connect with what the youth are thinking, feeling, navigating, exploring,” Duncan said. “They are the future, and I’m always fascinated and encouraged by their honesty, bravery, and willingness to discover.”

Lerner said Have Faith, which is about a Catholic University student who accidentally summons a demon to her dorm room while doing a Latin homework assignment, was inspired by the television show Lucifer, but that the college setting itself stemmed from the fact that she was writing the play during her senior year of high school, while simultaneously applying to colleges. 

Lerner said she wrote and submitted the play as part of a class assignment—she never thought she would actually win. 

“I think that the best part of this experience has been learning how to work with an entirely new written creative medium,” she said via e-mail. “I had never even thought about writing a play before, so it was challenging to have to write in a completely foreign way. The last time I was involved with theater in any way was probably sixth grade, so I had no idea how to go about writing for a theater production. I had to reorient the ways in which I thought about writing so that I could create a story for the stage instead of the page.”

The reality of creating art alongside the doldrums of day-to-day life—assignments, college applications, familial expectations, and, yes, a global pandemic—and the timelessness of that dichotomy, is perhaps another lesson afforded to these students. 

For Fifteen Minutes (directed by Ruben Carrazana), in which five people in a park must frantically decide what to do when receiving devastating news, Lessem Elnecave was primarily inspired by the Greek myth of Cassandra, “wherein a young woman is given the gift (or rather curse) of being able to foresee impending doom, but [is] unable to do anything about it,” they said via e-mail. 

“This made me think of the collective helplessness that so many of us felt facing the pandemic. I really love storytelling mediums that give me the ability to explore real emotional difficulties like this but in a more unlikely or unrealistic setting. Like all of existence ending.”