This entry was originally published by the Chicago News & Events Examiner.
A packed house gathered together to see a one-night only collection of plays, "Facing Our Truth: Ten-Minute Plays on Trayvon, Race and Privilege," at 7 p.m., Mon., March 3 in Chicago's Goodman Theatre located at 170 N. Dearborn St.
The six-play series is in association with Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater and was free to the public. All had some connection to the 17-year-old teenager who was killed in Florida by George Zimmerman. Some plays connected well with the tragedy. Others not so much. An additional play "Two Years Later" was shown after intermission.
The first play "Night Vision" by Dominique Morisseau was an interesting look at a couple expecting their first child who saw a man beating on a woman while they walked down the street. The woman reported a description of the abuser. Her husband listened in. But the two quickly panicked when they realized the descriptions they had in mind for the guy on the street didn't match, and assumptions were made about race solely by his attire.
The biggest con for this play, and the other five before intermission, was that none of the actors memorized the lines so they were all reading from music stands. In all fairness, Goodman Theatre promoted the event as "staged readings." This unfortunately slowed all of the plays' fluidity down though.
During one section of the play, the pregnant woman Ayanna (played by Tania Richard) embraced her husband Ezra (played by D'Wayne Taylor), but since she didn't know the lines, she turned away from him to read from his music stand. The couple did a pretty good job of making the lines seem genuine, but when they spent as much time looking at pieces of paper as they did looking at each other, there were moments when the acting felt a bit vapid.
The second play "Some Other Kid" by A. Rey Pamatmat won some women's hearts over with puppy love incorporated into a play about three teens headed to college. Ellisa (played by Emjoy Gavino) doesn't know that Owen (played by Rob Fenton) has a crush on her, and Andre (played by Tyrone Phillips) takes full advantage of this. In the middle of teasing him about his crush, audience members learn that Andre is a black guy headed to an elite college. But after one too many jokes about Owen's mother, the conversation went from friendly banter to disrespectful, and stories about torturing cats and hitting suffocating fish didn't lend anything to the plot. The only connection to Trayvon Martin was at the very end with a hoodie. This play was pretty good on its own merit but was a bit of a stretch to incorporate Martin or privilege. The race part worked though.
The third play "The Ballad of George Zimmerman" by Dan O'Brien with music by Quetzal Flores did the same thing that "The Ballad of Emmett Till" did, shown at the Goodman Theatre in 2008. It used music to tell a story. Musicals can be done flawlessly, but a live guitar play with a character just saying words in a singsong voice is cringeworthy. Nothing rhymed or even flowed. Nicholas Bailey played the part of George Zimmerman, and he just sang how he felt about Trayvon Martin (played by Tyrone Phillips). The dialogue was written to jumble a bunch of history about both characters into 10 minutes with Bailey strumming a guitar endlessly. The Officer (played by Allison Sill) has a beautiful voice, and for any other topic this would've been a hit. But for a slain boy not so much. And who cares how well a person sings when the topic is a grown man getting out of a murder charge or getting his guns returned to him?
The fourth play "Colored" by Winter Miller was a play on a train platform and inside a train car. There was talk of a man with his penis out and how one woman felt about "Blue" people. And then random teenagers performed on a train for money. This had very little to do with Martin (besides teenage death stats) but quite a bit to do with the issues between class and generation gaps. On top of reading from a script the entire time, the acting from the crew playing teenage boys left much to be desired. The dance routine was amusing, but the dialogue felt forced. And all the cursing made the play unnecessarily harsh.
The fifth play "Dressing" by Mona Mansour and Tala Jamal Manassah may have worked to show the connection between a mother and a son if two things had happened: the mother (played by Tania Richard) didn't have to flip pages to read the script through a crying scene and the son (played by Julian Parker) did more talking than laying on the ground after his supposed death. Richard was a bit melodramatic in "Night Vision," but it worked for her because she was playing the part of a vulnerable pregnant woman. In this play both characters were just over the top.
The sixth play "No More Monsters Here" was a car crash as soon as the therapist (played by Aaron Todd Douglas) let his patient Rebecca (played by Mary Hollis Inboden) loose in the streets. The idea was that this white woman who was terrified of black men would have to live in the hood for a few days wearing a hoodie. Then she'd be able to see how black men were portrayed through this magical hoodie that was supposed to make her blend in. But when Rebecca's Greatest Grand/Ookie (played by Penelope Walker) said the line, "Oprah Winfrey....that's a b***h that will f**k up some chicken," the play went from mediocre to cruel. Plenty of stereotypes were thrown out about black people and slang was incorporated to make Rebecca seem (painfully) like she can "talk black," but the idea of this hoodie was too preposterous to take seriously.
And the tacky grandmother could've been replaced with a friend or anyone else who added more to the script other than promoting soul food and making lowbred comments about icons. Inboden is an impressive actress in both "No More Monsters Here" and "Colored," but Walker was much better in "Colored" than in "No More Monsters Here." But that was solely because of the written (and read) words, not the actresses.
With four out of six plays leaving much to be desired, there was concern about whether Monday night's event was worth the waiting list, a full theater and confirmation of why the play series was free. "Night Vision" and "Some Other Kid" were excellent introductions, the most compelling and independently deserve four stars. But the seventh play "Two Years Later" made an average 2.5-star night into a 5-star ending. (Click here to read the review.)
Many of the plays had the potential to be good. The vulgarity wasn't the problem so much as too many times it felt like a character would come out and go, "Look! I can curse! Did you hear me?" as opposed to being fluid. Watching actors stare at music stands made other plays worse to watch. And still others just never connected and were met with polite instead of genuine applause. But with six different plays and a crowd of different opinions, there are sure to be those who will disagree.
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