In the first scene of Idris Goodwin’s new play, Idle Threats, Zodiac, an experimental filmmaker, is interviewed by Crit, a film critic who admires her work. When Zodiac dismisses the interview as a waste of her time, however, the critic turns on her and writes a bad review of her most recent film, which he hasn’t seen. In retaliation, Zodiac hires a friend to kidnap Crit and force him to watch her student films for a week. The kidnapper brings along his cousin, who’s fresh out of prison, and from there things go a little haywire.

After his first play, Braising, got a glowing review in the Reader in September 2001, Goodwin started thinking about criticism and “how much the pendulum can swing.” Although he appreciated the praise, he was unnerved by how easily the few short paragraphs could have been scathing. For Goodwin, Idle Threats is about the power of words. “I’ve never been the type of person that thinks that actions speak louder than words,” he says. “I think words are pretty powerful. They carry a lot of weight and they can make people do some pretty crazy things.”

Originally from Detroit, Goodwin came to Chicago in 1996 to study film and screenwriting at Columbia College. But although he got a BA in film and wrote several screenplays, he wasn’t quite satisfied. “I like to make work. I love to just make it and see it,” he says. “And I was making these film scripts, but I wasn’t seeing them. If I write something that’s supposed to exist visually and I’m never seeing it, I’ll never know. I’d still have this cast of characters in my brain.”

His years at Columbia were also the early days of Farm Crew, a hip-hop trio Goodwin (aka MC Eye Spy) started with friends David Digangi and Justin Mayer. The three released an EP and a 12-inch in 2001, and they’re recording a full-length CD now. Goodwin’s also explored other collaborations and recorded and performed solo. Hip-hop, he says, is present in everything he does; his scripts focus on character and voice, and the quick rhythms, jokiness, and nonstop pop-culture references of hip-hop permeate the work and drive the dialogue, enlivening otherwise weighty subjects with a sense of play.

“I always look at hip-hop as sort of like the voice of the proletariat, the antithesis to ‘litteratoor,'” he says. “That’s what I like and all my characters sort of represent that.”

His second play, Verses., which he produced and directed as part of this fall’s Rhinoceros Theater Festival, addresses a longtime friendship between two men, but also touches on the frustration with racial stereotypes that Goodwin says he experiences as a black man in the arts. Through his focus on specific characters and situations, he asks audiences to recognize and respect the uniqueness of each person and relationship rather than rely on easy stereotypes. Idle Threats contains inside jokes for filmmakers, but the key conflicts–balancing work and a personal life, job dissatisfaction, family disappointments–are universal.

Currently studying with Beau O’Reilly in the graduate writing program at the School of the Art Institute, Goodwin also works as a teaching assistant at SAIC, tutors at a refugee resettlement agency, and organizes a biweekly poetry reading at Jinx cafe in Wicker Park. After five years as Eye Spy, he’s also thinking about dropping his hip-hop moniker, so that his music and theater work will appear under the same name and be more obviously of a piece.

“I complain about gas prices,” he says, “but there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t build a solar car. But if I think that there’s wack music, and if I think that there’s wack theater and wack movies, I can do something about that. I can at least contribute. So it’s not just a person bitching.”

Idle Threats, directed by Stefan Brun, runs December 5 through 28 at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theater, 78 E. Washington. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7 and Saturday at 4. Tickets are $10, $5 for students. It’ll reopen January 10 at Prop Thtr, 4225 N. Lincoln, where it’s scheduled to run through February 2. For more information call 773-289-3506.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.