Chicago Theatre Review
Art or Atrosity?
This is Modern Art – Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults
America is a country that fought for and celebrates its freedoms. The Constitution’s First Amendment protects our collective freedom of speech, which can also be interpreted as the right for self-expression. We need to be reminded, however, that an individual’s freedom of expression extends only as far as the freedom of the next person. In other words, in this country an artist is guaranteed the right to create as long as he isn’t depriving someone else of their right to do the same. One’s right to create and express doesn’t give him the right to destroy or deface what someone else has created.
Steppenwolf’s latest production, aimed at young audiences, seeks to recognize graffiti as a post-modernist art form. A recent performance, however, sparked a great deal of controversy among its audience. Both during the play and afterwards at the post-show talkback, which follow each performance, conflicting views were expressed about the nature of art and the rights of the artist. Written by playwrights Kevin Coval, founder of Louder Than a Bomb: the Chicago Youth Poetry Festival, and Idris Goodwin, whose works include “How We Got On” and “Blackademics,” this 80-minute one-act is not only set in Chicago but sparked by an actual event. In 2010 an exterior wall of the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing was graffiti bombed by some young artists who not only wanted their work to be seen but enjoyed challenging and defying authority. Their work, which was caught by surveillance cameras, was understandably viewed as vandalism. To the city, this act was an infringement of the architect’s freedom, as well as “the criminal defacement of property with paint.” These artists’ reactionary creativity cost Chicago a great deal of unnecessary money and manpower to remove the graffiti and, although these criminals have yet to be caught, felony charges still await them.
The point raised in this play, which is passionately and intelligently performed by six talented Chicago-based actors, is that there are scores of local artists in every city whose work goes unseen, unappreciated and unsupported. Employing only inexpensive cans of spray paint and felt-tipped markers, these young, gifted craftsmen simply want a venue in which to express themselves and be noticed. What isn’t really addressed in this play is how these young artists, in enjoying their freedom of expression, are also taking away the rights of another artist. The argument persists that the cost of removing graffiti from venues where it’s unwanted results in increased taxes and wasted manpower. These all could be put to better use.
As a production, this play does everything that art is supposed to do. It involves its audience, inspires conversation and forces theatergoers to think and draw their own conclusions about what they’ve seen. No one will leave this production without being moved in some way. For this alone, bravo! Lisa Portes has directed the production with style and energy. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic design smoothly melds with Liviu Pasare’s incredibly artistic projection work and J.R. Lederle’s astounding lighting.
Ms. Portes’ cast is excellent. Jerry MacKinnon is an articulate and astute Seven, the smart leader of the Made You Look army of graffiti artists, all of whom just want to leave their creative mark on this city. J. Salome Martinez, Jr. brings a tough, but empathetic quality to JC and Jessie D. Prez as Dose is a dynamic, fidgety artist whose talent eventually takes him beyond being simply a graffer and into the world of respected craftsmen being paid for their work. Lovely Kelly O’Sullivan, seen recently in ATC’s wonderful “The Humans,” is the audience’s connection with these artists. As Seven’s girlfriend Selena, she’s not only his love interest and confidant but the driver and lookout girl for the group. As such, Ms. O’Sullivan brings warmth and understanding to a young woman forced to make some difficult choices before this play is over. Brittani Arlandis Green and Chris Rickett round out the cast, playing other friends, news anchormen, the police, and others. They do a commendable job with the challenge of creating a variety of believable, often humorous characters.
This production is sharp, exciting and stimulating, both visually and emotionally. It will entertain, educate and is guaranteed to prompt heated discussions about the nature of art and the place for graffiti in our world. It must be pointed out that this art form, often destructive to an architect’s work, is not to be confused with gangland graffiti marking. This play is in praise of the struggling artist, not the gang-banger. Kudos, also, to those responsible for assembling the informative and thoughtfully edited printed program that every theatergoer receives. It provides a wealth of facts and opinions about this art form that most audience members will find fascinating and inspiring. This entire theatrical experience, while it undoubtedly will inspire debate, can’t be denied. It’s production that’s meant to be seen.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by Steppenwolf for Young Adults February 25-March 14 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-335-1650 or by going to www.steppenwolf.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.