Free Street Theater
By Gabrielle S. Kaplan
Mad Joy is one of the riskiest, most innovative and sophisticated pieces of original theater I’ve seen in Chicago in the last three years. Employing the haunting music of a violin and viola combined with intense drums, ritualistic dance influenced by hip-hop and the blues, and an explosive poetic text that’s both gritty and fantastical, Mad Joy tells the story of Mecca, a woman whose life begins with her death and moves backward in a clear but nonlinear fashion. Keep in mind that the people who’ve created and who perform this wild play aren’t seasoned theater artists but high school students selected to be in TeenStreet, a Free Street Theater program that pays teens minimum wage to create theater and expects from them professional dedication and respect.
Clearly the program is succeeding. In Mad Joy the teens communicate the unrelenting pressure of inner-city existence through images in the text: crack pipes hidden under floorboards, pregnant mothers drinking Seagram’s, a suicidal teen imagining the faces of her family at her funeral. These images underscore the story, they weave the fabric of the characters’ world, but they never preach or moralize. The world is the world, with its magic and despair, and Mecca has no choice but to survive. There are no easy answers here, no “just say no” solutions; instead, both the text and the movement express the deep emotions of poverty and loss and allow us to come to our own conclusions.
It’s not surprising, considering the age and experience of the TeenStreet company, that Mad Joy explores a woman getting younger, not older. Mecca’s journey begins with a satisfied and peaceful old age; she’s a sort of innocent, an unjaded woman who doesn’t remember the things of her past, just as those of us who age in the ordinary way can’t know our future. Considering the fates of many of America’s inner-city youth–the untimely deaths through gang fights, random shootings, substance abuse, little or no health care, and poverty–it makes sense that the company would create a story about a woman who begins in death and whose birth contains the hope of life everlasting. Mecca hasn’t the memory for remorse: her existence is solely in the present tense, in each moment, and she’s liberated by her lack of attachment to possessions and ambitions. The way Mad Joy wrestles with time, place, and the stuff of atoms clearly reveals the urgency of those who’ve considered their own mortality. There’s a passion, a fierceness in this work that wouldn’t come from young people primarily concerned with prom gowns and college applications.
The talent of this ensemble, which operates very much as a cohesive unit, is exceptional. Director-facilitator Ron Bieganski has chosen the members well and brings out their individual talents despite the work’s ensemble nature. These young performers can sing, act, and dance with equal skill, and some of them also play instruments and have helped write the text, under playwright Bryn Magnus’s guidance. The dances, choreographed by three-year TeenStreet vet Happi Price, are stunning and precise, from the expressionistic opening collage to rhythmic collective choruses that kept me on the edge of my seat. The playing by the classical string duo (John Paul Pacino on violin and Barbara Sit on viola, who together composed the music) is in striking contrast with the more jazzy, smoky text. Together these elements take us with Mecca on a journey that’s both of this world and beyond it.
Mad Joy proves that theater doesn’t need elaborate props or sets; it simply needs the imagination of artists and audiences. On a bare stage with no props, these performers use their bodies and voices to move us from scene to scene. Ann Boyd’s expressive costumes help define the characters, and Bieganski’s lighting subtly contributes to the scenes. But beyond these, no technical effects are needed. In this minimalist style of theater, story and performance win out over spectacle.
Tameka J. Flowers, Tomeka Hayes, Valarie Hildebrand, Trulawn McCray, Joshua Mitchell, Theresa Nazario, Keli K. Stewart, Brian E. Vines, Price, Pacino, Sit, and writers Chanta Jackson and Kim Johnson have proved themselves vital theater artists. If they continue on this path, they’ll greatly enrich our community.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kristine Wolf.