The three one-acts that make up the 32nd annual Chicago Young Playwrights Festival don’t shy away from big issues, but they struggle to convey those issues in a personal way. While it’s no surprise that high schoolers might have trouble dramatizing large topics such as sexual identity, domestic abuse, and immigrants grappling with gentrification in unique ways, there’s no questioning the earnest effort evident in each of these short plays, produced and performed by theater professionals at Pegasus Theatre.
In A Green Light, by Lane Tech College Prep student Alexis Gaw, a boy comes out as gay to his female best friend and gets a chilly reaction. He is offended that she won’t accept who he is or want to hear about his crushes the way he always has about hers, and wonders whether they are as close as he thought. She sees his sexuality as a political issue, while hers is a matter of “normal” feelings. It is a surprise to no one that the real problem is that she was in love with him and his revelation broke her heart. While the sentiments expressed are no doubt sincere, I could not help feeling like I was watching an after-school special. Everything is resolved tidily at the high school prom, lessons are learned, and, presumably, everyone lives happily ever after.
In Kenwood Academy High School student Anonda Tyler’s Fragile Limbs, a boy named Faith and a girl named Hope come together and heal each other’s wounds. He grapples with the loss of loved ones to Chicago street violence, while she contemplates suicide because of her mother’s abuse. A Grim Reaper-like hooded figure at first haunts the young pair but eventually becomes a kind of guardian angel as their romance develops. While some of Tyler’s language leans too heavily on platitudes (and naming the protagonists Hope and Faith is beyond on-the- nose), there’s no doubt that the struggles she relates are absolutely real. There’s a palpable torment to the way these two young people try to do all they can to break free of the shackles that bind them.
Good Strong Coffee by Whitney Young Magnet High School’s Luna MacWilliams rounds out the program with a sprawling story of Latino siblings trying to keep their late parents’ Pilsen coffee shop afloat in spite of gentrification and their own personal hopes and dreams. While certainly the most ambitious of the three plays, this one is also the one most indebted to TV sitcom tropes. Most telling are the repeated pantomimed “montage” transitions between scenes. It’s the kind of thing that might work with video editing but feels completely stagey performed live. There is also a too-neat happy ending, not unlike the one in A Green Light.
Thinking back on the three pieces while leaving the theater, I kept coming back to the spectral figure in Fragile Limbs. Dubbed “Fragile Boy” in the program and played with an intensity lacking in any other part of the show by Elaine C. Bell, this was the only character who did not seem to me a product of either pop culture or other known tropes. This shape-shifting spirit felt like a personal evocation of the metaphysical entirely of Tyler’s conjuring.
It’s probably unfair to expect writers who haven’t lived very long to present insightful narratives. It takes many years to shed the influence of books, TV shows, movies, and other media, which can’t help but inform and often overwhelm a young person’s early creative efforts. Watching these plays, I wasn’t discouraged by what they portend for the future of Chicago theater. There was little cynicism or rote jokeyness presented—just a lack of specificity, which can only be attained with time and experience.
I don’t know whether these three young writers or the hundreds of other high school students who submitted their efforts to this festival will make a career on the stage, but the fact that they aspire to succeed at such a quixotic endeavor can’t help but make me hopeful. Given a little more seasoning, one or two will certainly come up with new ways to make the personal political and the global local. In the meantime, I applaud their sincere, if flawed, first efforts. v