Besties’ friendship is put to the ultimate test in splendid ‘Chlorine Sky’ at Steppenwolf

The world-premiere stage adaptation of Mahogany L. Browne’s young adult novel delivers dramatically and — in a number of thrilling basketball sequences — athletically.

SHARE Besties’ friendship is put to the ultimate test in splendid ‘Chlorine Sky’ at Steppenwolf
Samuel B. Jackson (from left), Akili Ni Mali, Tiffany Renee Johnson, Destini Huston and Demetra Dee star in Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of “Chlorine Sky.”

Samuel B. Jackson (from left), Akili Ni Mali, Tiffany Renee Johnson, Destini Huston and Demetra Dee star in Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of “Chlorine Sky.”

Michael Brosilow

Best-friend relationships can be fraught, especially if those involved suddenly find their interests painfully diverging.

And rarely do the stakes of such ruptures seem higher than they do in high school. Set in and around a high school, what’s at risk is raw, apparent and relatable no matter your age in Steppenwolf Theatre’s world-premiere adaptation of “Chlorine Sky.”

Directed by Ericka Ratcliff, Mahogany L. Browne’s young adult novel in verse explores the evolution of a friendship between two teenage girls. The production delivers dramatically and — in a number of thrilling basketball sequences — athletically.

‘Chlorine Sky’

Untitled

When: Through March 11

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults in the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $5-$30

Run-time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Info: steppenwolf.org


The coming-of-age story involves a snare of bad boyfriends, sibling fights and toxic gossip. Over the course of a taut 90 minutes, Browne has Sky (Akili Ni Mali) and her best friend Lay Li (Destini Huston) navigate colorism, sexual assault and addiction as well as their changing relationship. It’s a lot, but it never rings less than true, and the dramatic tension rarely flags.

Mali’s Sky is at the heart of the story. She’s a natural athlete and a young woman more comfortable in well-worn basketball shorts than designer anything, far more at ease on the court or in the swimming pool than anywhere else. Mali displays the grace and power of a natural athlete and the awkwardness of a teenager who is unsure away from the field of play.

There’s a moment when Sky realizes Lay Li is always looking through — not at — her. The crestfallen ache in her eyes is wrenching, and it’s one of many that capture the confusion, hurt and rage that Sky contends with whenever she’s not shooting hoops or under water.

In contrast, Huston’s Lay Li is vapid and unwittingly tragic as the friend who dumps you for a random boy or a more popular girl. At least, that’s who Lay Li seems initially. Huston brings what’s needed to make Lay Li’s selfishness believable while eventually peeling back layers that throw all of her shallow obsessions into a different light and render her empathetic.

On or off the court, the supporting cast is seamless. Alexis Ward makes Sky’s older, undeniably cool and unfailingly punctual cousin Inga, a beacon of supportive wisdom, delivering pep talks that should be on the Tik-Toks. When she disarms Sky’s insecurities, it’s with joyful conviction.

If Inga’s the person you always want in your corner, Sky’s older sister Essa (Tiffany Renee Johnson) is the sibling whose cruelty leaves wounds. Johnson has a fanged, subtle sneer that makes it clear these barbs are meant to scar.

In less than ideal double-casting, Samuel B. Jackson takes on two male roles: Lay Li’s boyfriend Curtis and Sky’s boyfriend Clifton. Between them, Clifton and Curtis embody all manner of noxious traits, jealousy and possessiveness figuring graphically among them. Clifton is all terrible game and faux chivalry. Curtis’ attentiveness is believably addictive. Jackson makes the menace and the foolishness evident in both.

The arrival of Shawn (Samuel B. Jackson, top left) further complicates the friendship between Lay Li (Destini Huston) and Sky (Akili Ni Mali) in “Chlorine Sky.”

The arrival of Shawn (Samuel B. Jackson, top left) further complicates the friendship between Lay Li (Destini Huston) and Sky (Akili Ni Mali) in “Chlorine Sky.”

Michael Brosilow

The cast is rounded out by Demetra Dee as Kiyana, a student whose kindness to Sky makes Lay Li and Essa’s cruelties seem all the harsher. She also executes a key move in one of the drama’s most giddily empowering and gratifying scenes. I can’t divulge it without spoilers, but suffice to say it involves a ninja-type operation in a mall food court and a whole lot of pretzel cheese, chaos, joy and empowerment.

The production soars during movement scenes choreographed by Joey Stone. At one point, the whole cast is on stage dribbling and passing, half a dozen or so basketballs flying among the ensemble with a precision that underscores the bonds among the characters. When Sky squares off against a bruising array of opponents, she generates the energy of a whole pep rally.

Yeaji Kim’s scenic and projection design smoothly transforms from swimming pool to basketball court, a bright color palette making the stage pop like gel-pen doodles. The environment is completed by lighting directors Conchita Avitia and K Story. There’s no water on stage, but, when Sky sinks into the pool, her world transforms into one of watery ripples nonetheless.

“Chlorine Sky” is beloved as a novel. Its fans — and those who have never read it — will find much to love at Steppenwolf.

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