CHICAGO YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
I've seen all of Pegasus Players' Chicago Young Playwrights Festivals, a project now in its fourth year, and the similarities between the teens' plays outweigh the differences. Though the subjects range from the perils of peer pressure to the menace of mothers who beat their kids, there's a striking consistency in structure and style, at least in the works the judges have picked from the 250 or so scripts submitted.
Divided into a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end (and often a "before" and "after," too), the straightforward plots are laden with realism, light on irony and satire, and so focused on ethical dilemmas that they're almost morality plays. Discarding plot twists and slick resolutions, they often end abruptly with an illustrative death. But even when these young writers are reinventing first love or bad parents, they manage to offer earnest and varied looks at the problems teenagers wrestle with. And apart from their idealistic uplift or cut-the-crap naturalism, they're often just plain entertaining, especially given Pegasus Players' sympathetic and professional stagings.
It's tricky to generalize about drama, whether by young Americans or ancient Greeks; at their best, these plays are too real to be merely representative. This year's batch of four plays is tighter in construction, less preoccupied with love than with the challenge of finding decent work. The mothers portrayed are more potent than the (mainly invisible) fathers. Curiously, the plays don't indict society for causing the crises depicted but do focus on the effects of cultural inequities--especially sexual stereotypes and class snobbery.
Two plays deal with drugs. The ironically titled Friends to the End is by Marvin Scott (of Crane High School), who in a taped preface says he writes in order to preserve in words his feelings and his friends. Friends vividly pictures a choice faced by two project kids, Levelle and Antwon. Antwon sells drugs partly to impress Levelle (he buys him a bomber jacket), but he also deals because it answers the question, "How can I make this much money without hurting someone?" But Levelle tells him he is.
As much as Antwon, Levelle wants a fast way out of the poverty that drags down his family. Levelle's mother tells him she'd rather make sacrifices than have him risk his life selling drugs to help her. But her love doesn't get through: Levelle's first day in the trade ends on a tragic, cautionary note. There's no easy out here, and Antwon's question remains unanswered.
In Gary Griffin's taut staging, Evan Lionel and Donn C. Harper strike enough sparks from the young men's conflicts to make their struggle seem inevitable, while Doris Craig plays the tough-loving mother with tensile strength.
Pipedreams, which also details the danger of drugs, was improvised by more than 15 students in Jobs for Youth, a high-school equivalency program. A young man wants to keep his cocaine dealing separate from his family, but his sister finds his stash and begins using. When she says, "Why can't I fall down sometimes?" he answers, "Because you just might not get up." This mother is less sympathetic: she's given up on her son, and wants only to save her daughter--by forcing her into a drug-rehabilitation program.
When the sister overdoses, the brother promises her he'll stop dealing--but his eyes never meet hers. And he still carries a $4,000 debt to his supplier. You guess the rest.
With strong performances by Jeffrey Lieber and Julie Walker as the embattled brother and sister, Edward Wilkerson's efficient staging plays the moments and seldom turns melodramatic.
The remaining plays are less predictable and more detailed; they take compassionate looks at teenage pregnancy and dead-end jobs. Seeing It Her Way is a wry variation, in a Twilight Zone vein, on the always-fascinating theme of turnabout as fair play. Morgan Park Academy sophomore Nilwona Nowlin imagines what would happen if a young man who just got his girlfriend pregnant and won't take any responsibility were to wake up one morning and discover he was the one who had to endure "nine months of pain for one night of pleasure." He's suddenly big with child.
As a "pregnant teen with no support," he now sees things "her way": the baby is a burden, not a stud's trophy to brag about and ignore. Continuing the sexual role reversal, the high-school girls mock him for his weight gain while a formerly macho boy tenderly touches his bulging belly. When the "mother" finally breaks out of his spell, he's wise to the job of father.
Providing a deftly light touch to Nowlin's funny and satisfying fantasy, director Griffin gets pay-dirt performances from Byron Stewart as the baffled "mother," Julie Walker as his angry girlfriend, and Jeffrey Lieber as the boy's streetwise fairy godfather.
Rich with scathing observations about ugly adults, Off Highway 21, by Christi Rankin of Saint Ignatius College Preparatory, is the warmest, best- written discovery of all. A nicely detailed slice of life, Off Highway 21 takes an affectionate look at Darlene, a truck-stop waitress.
Darlene hopes to turn a correspondence course into a chance to run a day-care center. But right now her work consists of serving assorted, occasionally obnoxious customers: a pushy yuppie who makes Michelin-quality demands of this highway diner, a sympathetic trucker who encourages Darlene to break free, and two snotty college kids, one of whom all but molests her. In the end, by a process of elimination, Darlene finds herself alone with a battered dream--and no wish to give it up.
Director Chris Sumption makes Off Highway 21 flow smoothly and believably. Teresa Blake's waitress is indomitably resilient, and Kevin Kelly's snobbish preppie is every pound a sexist creep.
It's interesting how, inevitably and unwittingly, these plays are like so many rehearsals for their writers' futures. Though subtlety is not its specialty, Off Highway 21 is shrewd enough to be true to a lot more life than Christi Rankin could so far have encountered.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.