CHICAGO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
at Pegasus Players
When you're a teenager you think it'll never end--and not in the "I'm gonna live forever" sense of Fame. If someone tries to comfort you by saying that acne clears up after you're 20, well, holy hormones, you know you'll never, never hold out that long. Worse, you've got a problem for every pimple: parents who can yell but never listen, teachers who think weekends were made for homework, and, the absolute pits, fellow teenagers who don't appreciate (as in invite to parties, vote for, call up, eat lunch with, or go out with) your unique, never-before-on-the-planet self.
In their first Chicago Young Playwrights Festival, Pegasus Players bring back, screaming and kicking, a lot of memories of those--gag me with a Cuisinart!--best years of our lives. Except that for these four teenage playwrights the stories are decidedly in the present tense--and a bit too close for comfort. And it's doubtful that the tough times and talk recorded here will ever become anyone's nostalgia, i.e., bullshit. With its you-are-there immediacy reminiscent of Victory Gardens' recent Kids in the Dark, this material just won't settle down into a Bob Greene "I'm-grounded-and-I want-to-die" diary.
Chosen from 150 scripts, the four works reinvent the wisdom of writing about what you know; much here could be overheard in any high school corridor circa 1987. They're also filled with highly revealing beginners' problems--freeze-dried exposition; rambling and repetitious, television-bland dialogue; unmotivated mood shifts, hasty exits, and miraculous character changes; coin-slot conflicts and instant resolutions. But thank God no dramaturge spared us these growing pains. The exuberance, the crudeness, and, most of all, the conspicuous omissions (the few adults here are significantly vague) prove that here is the real, unsentimentalized McCoy. In their alternately hard-hitting or softhearted make-believe, these young writers touch the raw reasons people will always create words for other people to say.
The Laundromat, by Angela Jenkins of Truman Middle College, is rooted in a real (but not beautiful) launderette in Uptown where a one-armed Vietnam veteran really has worked. In Jenkins's play, which Arlene Crewdson directs, the handicapped hero Tito (Donn Harper) almost loses that job when the launderette changes owners. Tito's troubles work themselves out a tad too easily when a timely robbery yields an improbable bonanza, and the new owner tells Tito disabled folks can work as hard as anyone. Tito keeps his job. Jenkins's laundry people--among others, Sandra (Tina Wright) with six kids, no man, and a burning interest in contraceptives, guitar-playing Omar (Jeff Kahn), and tomboy-tough Angel (Colleen Kane)--are warm and vivid. (Unfortunately, life doesn't always imitate art. Since Laundromat opened the real launderette has been sold and the real Vietnam veteran is out of a job. Well, this is theater, not journalism.)
Just Coolin' Out is also staged by Crewdson with the script's own raw energy, some power-packed rapping by the ensemble, and a few too many pregnant pauses to register what isn't in the dialogue. Written by Keturah Shaw of Curie High School, this problem play is narrated by 14-year-old Jennifer (Kyra Snipes), among whose nononsense apostrophes to the audience is "Grown-ups--they don't know the first things about us!"--a sentiment that no doubt echoes the feelings Neolithic teenagers shared. Jennifer finds herself initially in love with the wonderful strangeness of getting drunk and high with her mainlining man Tony (Harry Lennix), a 19-year-old drug dealer. With some help from Tony himself ("I made nothin' out of my life--and I'm gonna make nothin' out of you"), she quickly wises up to this dead-end kid. Gently, Tony gives her a kiss-off that, painful as Jennifer may feel it, comes straight from the heart.
With all the ambition of a first effort, Von Steuben graduate Michelle McFarland named her play Reality, a title that takes in a lot of turf. The story of "moral" Michael (Lennix), a sort of straight (but not shooting) Len Bias who doesn't die and who wants out of the ghetto so hard we can taste it, Reality wisely preaches by means of some well-honed object lessons. In the end Michael happily makes his escape via a scholarship to Northwestern. Evanston also saves him from the jive-talking, life-snuffing crack dealer Squeak (well played by Harper, who 20 minutes before in Coolin' Out was urging Jennifer to "just say no").
McFarland gives us several rich characters and in turn gets some dynamite performances from Ed Townley's staging: Carlos Sanz's too trusting retarded boy, Brian Goodman's wired-out survivor, and Jeff Kahn's reluctant drug runner, to name but three.
Happily enough, the most developed work here, Changes, by Lincoln Park senior Cecily Schoen, was written by the one writer who intends to pursue play writing as a profession. Let's hope she keeps that promise: Changes is a deftly observed, psychologically right lesson in, to use the words of its younger-but-wiser narrator Anna, "how people change and refuse to admit it to others and even to themselves." Schoen may not suspect it, but "Why do people have to change?" is a question that doesn't expire with the age of 19.
Schoen's situation--teenage girls watching the Miss America pageant--is just right for fleshing out another kind of "useless competition," the girls' intricate maneuvering for status or, failing that, security. Adding to the infighting is a popular new girl (Kathleen Cecchin), who's displacing former friendships and straining to the breaking point the clique's delicate ties.
Thanks to Schoen's sharply etched portraits and Don Mayo's sympathetic direction (the bitchy exchanges and giggle attacks fit the script like gloves), Schoen's jealous teenagers emerge solid in themselves as well as in their character contrasts: Martha Sanders's confident, direct Anna; Cecchin's spitfire; Snipes's budding journalist; Kane's "complicated" odd girl out, and Kitty Sturgill's manipulating malcontent.
With some surefire songs by Townley, Kahn, and Taylor James, street-smart costumes by Claudia Boddy, and a raw brick set by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod, this Pegasus production backs up these urgent new voices with its own professional persuasiveness. But it's on the merits of the plays themselves that this Chicago Young Playwrights Festival deserves to become a constant contest.