Note to the powers that be at The Second City: You are strongly advised to take a peek at “RACE to the Finish,” one of the four fine works in Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 30th annual Young Playwrights Festival, now on stage at Chicago Dramatists. The play is the work of Sejahari Saulter-Villegas of the Kenwood Academy (where his teacher is Nina Williams), and he has used his spoken word skills and theatrical savvy to craft one of the sharpest, most sophisticated, up-to-the-minute satires on the subject of black-white race relations you will find on any stage. The guy is a natural; recruit him while you can.
PEGASUS THEATRE’S YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL
When: Through Jan. 29
Where: Pegasus Theatre at Chicago Dramatists, 773 N. Aberdeen
Tickets: $18 – $30
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
This is not to negate the skill behind the other three plays in the festival, all of which are the clever, probing and timely creations of local high school students, and were chosen from 600 entries to receive full-scale professional productions. But “RACE to the Finish” is something special.
The theme for this year’s plays was “assumptions,” and each of the emerging writers here has approached the subject in a unique way, with their plays enhanced by zesty direction, performances by a cast of seven quick-change actors, and easily morphable sets by Marissa Gil that are lit by Josh Wrebleski.
In “Obsessed,” Alexandra Obert of Lincoln Park High School (whose teacher is Ahoo Kosari), addresses the subject of assumptions by looking at male-female relationships and the problems that come with a shaky sense of self-worth. And she deftly manages to mix humor with a sort of emotional creepiness.
At the play’s center is Jeremy (Ryan Smetana), a nerdy barista at a cafe near a college campus Jeremy suffered an ugly breakup with a girl several years ago and now is being pushed and “advised” by his more confident alter-ego, Jeremy’s Subconscious (Alex Ireys). When a pretty psychology major, Violet (Nicole Laurenzi), turns up at the cafe one day he is instantly smitten, but terribly awkward. His crush quickly becomes an obsession as he checks her out online and learns there is a smug boyfriend, Marcus (Alex Brick), already in the picture. Violet has her own back story, and in many ways this play, directed by Juan Ramirez, is about her awakening to male control.
For her play “Guarding the Princess,” Elyssa Saldana of Whitney Young High School (whose teacher is Elizabeth Graf), has ingeniously turned to fairy tale mode, applying just the right hip, gently feminist gloss to a story of love, possession and free will. Ilesa Duncan, producing artistic director at Pegasus, has supplied the direction.
The lovely, free-thinking Princess Chattie (Christina Ward) is under the overprotective care of Eadweard the Dragon (Queena Barrett, decked out in a wonderfully toothy mask and claw-like footwear by costume designer Amy Chmeilweski, who also has supplied a slew of other character-defining costumes). The Dragon fears losing Chattie, so denies the attempts of the many knights (played by Smetana, Ireys, Laurenzi and the very funny Kai Ealy) who pursue her. Then she encounters Sam (played by Brick with just the right goofy sincerity), a penniless traveler who grabs her heart. The winning trick here is for the Princess to find a way to embrace both Sam and her Dragon.
Lane Tech Academy student Ricardo Salgado (whose teacher is Kirsten Hanson) goes decidedly “meta” and political in “Eye See All,” a play about a young woman clearly distraught by the state of global power plays. Jessica (Ward) has just been released from a mental hospital, but as her brother Ryan (Ealy) quickly realizes, she still holds fast to paranoid conspiracy theories and is hellbent on exposing the secret society she believes is controlling the world.
Suffice it to say the siblings penetrate an Illuminati-like cult of monks and encounter the sassy, mysterious Oculus. And Salgado, in league with director Warner Crocker, taps into the laughter as well as the fear that permeates the current moment.
Finally, a look at Saulter-Villegas’ “RACE to the Finish,” directed by Duncan. He introduces us to Laquan (Ealy) and Rekia (Barrett) – two heaven-bound African Americans who are recent victims of police brutality — and we watch as they become contestants in a perverse, “never-can-win” Freedom Line challenge held as part of the TV game show that echoes the play’s title.
The playwright brilliantly channels many familiar recent new stories, including the cases of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, and charts the escalating desperation and futility that drive the contestants (superbly played by Ealy and Barrett) to their knees. At the same time, Saaulter-Villegas manages to tap the perversely comic antics of Rachel Dolezal, the wannabe-black white woman who caused such a stir (a terrific turn by Laurenzi in full Afro wig), and introduces us to a blonde-bewigged fellow by the name of Donald Trumpet. Talk about moving from the tragic to the ridiculous.