Ike Holter’s Red Rex, the sixth in his seven-play Chicago cycle set in the fictional neighborhood of Rightlynd (aka the 51st Ward), is a play at war with itself. On the one hand it wants to entertain: the play is a spot-on send-up of Chicago storefront theaters and the quirky people who make up those ragtag companies. On the other hand, it wants to be a serious play, packed with meaningful observations about life and art. It succeeds on both counts. One of the more bracing aspects of Holter’s play is how it bristles with trenchant observations about race and class and the insidious way unconscious racism influences the perceptions of even well-meaning people who believe in their hearts they are not racist.
A lesser play might have been torn apart by this tension between entertainment and edification. A lesser theater company might have erred on one side or the other. But Holter’s play, especially in the current Steep Theatre premiere directed by Jonathan Berry, is, I think, stronger—and more interesting— because of its contradictions.
It helps that Holter knows how to tell a good story, filled with interesting, well-drawn characters. He’s also a very graceful wordsmith with a strong ear for dialogue and dialect.
He has shown us this side of his craft before. In The Wolf at the End of the Block (2017) Holter slides from a dizzying slam-poet style in which characters deliver street-smart, word-drunk monologues to naturalistic dialogue that could have been lifted straight from transcripts of everyday conversations. But this time he has gone meta. Red Rex is a play about a storefront theater in a gentrifying south-side neighborhood putting on a play with a strong social message playing in a storefront theater in a gentrifying north-side neighborhood (Edgewater). Oh, and Red Rex is a play steeped in social justice issues.
Usually there’s a touch of narcissism to this kind of meta theater, like the gentle self- criticism of a play (like Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong) that slaps wrists and then forgives everyone at the end—oh, aren’t we a funny, quirky lot! In Red Rex, Holter isn’t going to let anyone off the hook.
Holter loves to poke sacred cows. (It’s one of his most endearing qualities as a comic writer.) Repeatedly he reveals the racist assumptions made by his well-meaning white theater makers. Lana, the white director-playwright at the center of the story, for example, appropriates the tragic story of a local woman, the victim of police brutality, without thinking of asking permission from the living members of her family—or even contacting them.
As it happens, Trevor, the woman’s son, still lives in the neighborhood. His confrontation with the executive director of the Red Rex theater over the appropriation of his mother’s story is one of the most powerful moments in the play: “You stole some shit from me. From my family. Our history. I think you took my life from my life and I think you’re trying to pass it off like it’s some shit you just came up with. . . . That is my life, it belongs to me. You give it back. You give it back.” To this, the executive director has no response. Later he and other members of the theater can’t even remember his name. They keep calling him Trayvon (after Trayvon Martin, another sly dig).
At another point in the story someone observes the critics will all write great reviews of Lana’s play—which, frankly, looks and sounds like a mess—because they’re afraid of being labelled racist if they don’t. And, indeed, once the play opens it does receive glowing reviews and becomes a hit.
It takes guts to write a play that pokes at the still mostly white Chicago theater audience (and critics) this way. But that’s another of Holter’s strengths. He’s a terrific provocateur.
He has found a good company for his work at Steep Theatre. Every aspect of the production is flawless. Holter’s story unfolds at just the right pace, and Berry’s ensemble perfectly embodies its characters. Amanda Powell’s performance is a revelation: as the manipulative, emotionally damaged director- playwright Lana she slithers through the play, slowly revealing the racism lurking beneath her shallow white liberal platitudes. Likewise, Debo Balogun is riveting as Trevor, an intense young man trying to preserve the memory of his senselessly murdered mother.
Holter and the folks at Steep Theatre have achieved something great here: a play that both entertains and edifies. It unflinchingly dares to tackle serious issues and serious ideas, but it never leaves the audience wanting less. v