Young Playwrights Festival

Pegasus Players

By Carol Burbank

Most plays by young writers fit easily into our preconceptions of youth, combining cultural stereotypes with the sense of moral urgency we associate with the idealistic young. Yet even playwrights with a sophisticated sense of language and character often favor a sitcom approach, every line ringing with the inevitable moral resolution. We know the ending from the moment the curtain rises because the stories are based on familiar dramas of crisis and revelation. Formulas give audiences the pleasure of predictability, offering a hermetically sealed format, a well-made play with as much character as a prefab house riding its wide load comfortably down the highway.

When I was a reader for the Philadelphia young playwrights’ festival, I often blamed the plays’ sameness on the influence of television or on controlling teachers who wanted to use playwriting classes as consciousness-raising sessions, encouraging movie-of-the-week scenarios about teen pregnancy, drugs, and gang violence. The playwrights’ joy in the process didn’t make up for my disappointment in the plays’ comforting moralism. The teen playwrights employed cultural stereotypes with depressing regularity–everything seemed to be about cycles, cycles of gang violence, cycles of abuse. Pregnant daughters confronted their unwed mothers, violent boys faced their violent fathers, bullying schoolmates broke down to confess their broken homes.

Of course, young writers are just saying what they think we want to hear–and maybe we do want to hear it. But somehow it seems worse when new rather than experienced writers stumble into prefab plodding. They don’t have to worry about building a career in a field that rewards plot cloning. I always hoped they might show us something different about ourselves and our storytelling. So it was with a mixture of dread and anticipation that I attended Pegasus Players’ 12th Annual Young Playwrights Festival–professional productions of 4 plays chosen from 410 submissions, the result of writing workshops and touring productions in Chicago’s middle and high schools.

What a delight to find vitality and genuine urgency in all four works! Although there are echoes of the usual teen themes and a few programmatic plot twists, the four winning playwrights could compete with many of the city’s new “professional” writers in originality. Most impressive, though, is the fact that each play records a compelling theatrical moment in the characters’ lives to raise questions about their past and future–without stereotypes.

The two most conventional works are memory plays in which the lead characters reenact traumatic events that made them strong. In each case the character’s strength gives the play energy, and the complexities of their struggles are fully rendered: the playwrights never gloss over pain with the tacky perkiness of formulaic victim narratives. Although the memory-play structure sometimes slows each play’s momentum, the playwrights have added a call-and-response musicality to each story by interrupting the narration with music and surreal action.

Temporary Lockdown V: Dreaming Among Friends was written by four members of the Music Theatre Workshop at the Jane Addams Resource Center. Anthony Wilson, Jamell Dorrough, Robert Mauricio, and Tommie Turner tell the story of a pro football player’s successful struggle to escape the random gang-related violence that killed his brother and nearly destroyed his best friend. The story itself is awkwardly told, a series of flashbacks framed by a celebratory interview with a sportscaster. But the writers have created a complicated villain, Threat, whose rap interludes offer a strong sense of the sexy, scary, streetwise arrogance and aggression that give him power. As played by Ray Thompson, Threat lifts his shirt off his belly and strokes his chest with a carnal, unself-conscious viciousness as he raps his own bleak street-thug legend, making one group of girls in the audience squeal and shout back. Almost alluring in his rough-edged physicality, the character emanates the menace that comes from the very specific, borrowed authority of gang hierarchies. The success story feels like a narrow-escape fantasy in which street violence ghosts every triumph.

This Is a Test: One Girl’s Fight With Cancer describes a different kind of survival, detailing seventh-grader Shenita Peterson’s recent medical problems. She wrote the script with Lorraine Bahena, La’Shay Evans, Irina Garduno, Steven Hatchet, Omolara Johnson, Elizabeth Lopez, and Diana Lozano, classmates at Washington Irving Elementary School. Nambi Kelley skillfully brings out the willful nuances of Peterson’s character, who narrates the story of her diagnosis, treatment, and surgery with a 13-year-old’s irreverent, sulky optimism. An inspired theatrical device gives the story a menacing rhythm and corrects any potential ignorance of medical terms: Peterson punctuates her journey with the spelling-bee-style recitation of words like “oncology” and “osteogenic sarcoma.” The green-coated doctors sitting in a watchful and supportive half-circle behind the action define, then repeat the medical conditions that threaten the girl’s life. Director Greg Kolack deserves a lot of credit for establishing a fast pace for Peterson’s grueling journey, but the story itself has its own winning energy. Survival for Peterson, at least in the play, means telling the truth, being a kid, and never succumbing to the stereotype of the shivering, weakened, but brave walking wounded.

The urgency and originality of Abbie Kruse’s Mommy Wants a Pony and Jake Berlin’s Brooklyn Bums come as much from the writing as from the characters. Both plays show the beginnings of a unique sense of theater, with characters whose subtext is as intriguing as their verbal interactions. These plays are more uncomfortable than the memory plays, showing us a moment of crisis in two relationships that will never run smoothly, no matter how much love is mustered.

In Mommy Wants a Pony, Kruse introduces us to a divorced mother and her precocious daughter, awkward and lonely friends who lack any true connection with each other because they cannot communicate through their fragile role-playing. The daughter is about to have sex for the first time, and her doubts and vulnerability prompt a painful attempt to confide in her mother, who’s cranky and overwhelmed after a day’s work. Wisely, Kruse is more interested in the teen’s adolescent manipulations and in her mother than in the young girl’s potential sex life. Although the play needs to be run through the typewriter a few more times to clean out the sometimes precious coyness of the daughter’s whimsical talk, the story is unusual, focusing on a very real conflict that I haven’t seen addressed before in contemporary theater about girls or women.

Of the four plays, Brooklyn Bums is the most promising: bravely, Berlin keeps the dialogue superficial throughout, allowing the characters’ feelings and histories to bubble poignantly beneath the surface. We meet a father who’s strategically senile and his frustrated middle-aged son as they spend the day on a dock, swimming and sunning. Their obvious love for each other and painful past separations come out in long talks about the Brooklyn Dodgers or briefly erupt in blunt questions. Why won’t his father visit his mother? Why is the son so idealistic about his parents? The audience never really learns the answers; we only hear the two men’s astounding shorthand and develop an instinctive sense of their history. Their awkward and temporary peace, which promises continued trouble and further enthusiastic arguments about baseball, is a subtle, well-crafted slice of life.

These are all works in progress by writers still wet behind the ears. But they tell even the most conventional tales with a fresh, specific vision of characters, language, and community. Refreshingly blunt, each work injects something magical into its story–rap music broadcasting Threat’s violence, a medical-establishment chorale defining a young girl’s life, an emotional crisis closing the door between a mother and daughter because of the banalities of their friendship, a father’s confession encoded in the language of baseball fans. In each case the story demands not just to be told, but to be staged and savored as good, original theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): This Is a Test: One Girl’s Fight With Cancer theater still by Greg Kolack.