A meditation on endings and new beginnings, Lottery Day is a fitting capstone for Ike Holter’s seven-play Chicago Cycle. Each play cast a spotlight on overwhelmingly unsolvable issues like gentrification, violence, politics, and community identity in the fictional 51st ward of Rightlynd, and Lottery Day attempts to reckon with the sum of these parts. Through pointed references to Chicago politics, Holter takes aim at entities such as Rahm Emanuel, Lori Lightfoot, the reviled police academy, and the thinly veiled “Applewood Foundation,” all of which strive to change disinvested neighborhoods by making choices that they will never have to feel the impact of.
In Lottery Day, neighborhood matriarch Mallory, who lives in the last old house on a newly “revitalized” block, invites a handpicked list of her closest family and friends to her backyard for an evening of merriment and mystery. Played by an explosively charismatic J. Nicole Brooks, Mallory is unapologetically saturated in her own existence, full of glamorous joie de vivre, piss and vinegar, and a lot of weed.
Her boisterous guests hoot and holler to the dismay of her snooty (some might say siddity) neighbor Vivien. Holter excels at excavating the personal details of gentrification through Vivien, played by a delightfully neurotic Michele Vazquez. She’s the neighbor who parrots false pleasantries, who can’t be bothered to explore real friendship by stopping by for a drink, and who calls the police for petty annoyances. When Vivien tells Mallory, “Now that the neighborhood is new, we have a responsibility to be better,” Holter makes clear that this conversation is about dominance, not negotiation.
Yet coexistence is the nexus of a neighborhood, and at the heart of every community is a Mallory: a person who holds everything together through sheer will. Warm lighting that casts beautiful golden hues and a musical backdrop of nostalgia-inducing soul hits like “Memory Lane” by Minnie Riperton immediately cue us into the love she possesses for her odd collection of blood and chosen family. Other characters from Holter’s universe make appearances here: Cassandra (a powerful McKenzie Chinn, toting a magical baby that never cries) from Sender, and her sister, Zora, a hilariously intense Sydney Charles, revisiting her vigilante role from Prowess; Robinson from Rightlynd (the deliciously jovial and salty Robert Cornelius); and the painfully earnest “woke” white guy Ricky (a pitch-perfect Pat Whalen) from Exit Strategy.
Rounding out this impressive cast are James Vincent Meredith as Mallory’s love interest Avery; a spastically peppy Tommy Rivera-Vega as Ezekiel, the aspiring rapper; Tony Santiago as Nunley, the affable hustler with questionable business sense; and Aurora Adachi-Winter as the peppy and overbearing entrepreneur Tori. Each of these people is broken in his or her own way, yet they are all united in their loyalty to Mallory.
Since its debut in the 2017 New Stages Festival, the script of Lottery Day has changed, making for a stronger story. Several threads and backstories have been trimmed and compressed. Though the ending is a bit too indulgent, unpacking what might have more effectively remained subtext, the new ending offers more catharsis. As the run continues, one hopes the actors will pause for laughs (and there are many) as some lines are lost underneath the uproarious amusement from the audience.
Jason Lynch’s stage lighting expertly enhances the terrifying experience of someone reliving a PTSD-triggered trauma, subtly changing from amber to pale blue to deep purple, mirroring Mallory’s roiling emotions as she tries to exorcise them by giving away the remainder of her memories. Director Lili-Anne Brown masterfully paces the dialogue, allowing the cast to tumble at breakneck speed into organized cacophony while emphasizing the moments of quiet and fragile anxiety where the indestructible Mallory is rendered vulnerable.
A trademark of Holter’s style is how nimbly he telescopes between the broad themes and sophisticated nuances of his subjects. Lottery Day is at once a meditation on personal loss and a community grieving its end. It is equally difficult for family and friends to realize that a grieving person may never return to her former self and for a neighborhood to understand that the fight is over and the gentrifiers have won. Sorrow mutates into a perverse competition of bloodletting and point- scoring. Who can claim that they are from the hood? Who turned tail and ran away—or escaped? Who built their success off of the exploitation of another? As things fall apart, “legitimacy” is all that is left with the pain of abandonment and betrayal—and the nagging doubt that it might be impossible to survive without compromise. As Robinson muses, even if one does “make it,” what’s the point of winning if everyone you wanted to share your success with is gone? Lottery Day offers hope on the other side of defeat. As Mallory teaches us through her grand gesture, “The only way out is by making it through.” v