To start, a hypothetical question addressed to the powers that be at Steppenwolf Theatre: How would you react were you to arrive at work one morning only to discover that the entire facade of your theater had been spray-painted with graffiti, and that the message left behind went like this: “All the world is OUR stage.”
I pose the question after having just seen “This Is Modern Art,” the wildly misguided new Steppenwolf for Young Adults production written by hip-hop artist Idris Goodwin and “Louder Than a Bomb” founder Kevin Coval, and directed by Lisa Portes.
Clearly the play is meant to be a provocation and a catalyst for controversy and discussion among the many high school groups that comprise the principal audience for this series. And no one would deny that in terms of its fine acting and knowingly “hip” writing and design this is an entertaining and “artful” production. But “This Is Modern Art” also sends out a slew of profoundly misguided messages to its impressionable viewers. And no politically correct review to rationalize it will appear here.
This play is a wildly wrong-headed and potentially damaging work — one that fails to call “vandalism” by its name, and rationalizes and attempts to justify that vandalism in the most irresponsible ways. It also trades in all the destructive, sanctimonious talk about minority teens invariably being shut out of opportunities and earmarked for prison in a way that only reinforces stereotypes and negative destinies. Counterproductive in the extreme, it deepens and solidifies racial and class divisions and a sense of hopelessness among those who need to dwell on possibility.
‘THIS IS MODERN ART’
When:7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 14
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre for Young Adults,
1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650;
Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Before moving on, a brief bit of history. I lived in New York throughout the 1970s, when graffiti became the medium of protest. I watched as thousands of subway cars, street signs, historic bridges and building walls were defaced — becoming a sort of visual virus that the city could neither control nor afford to erase.
That graffiti (which later surfaced as America’s “gift” to European cities, too) became the most self-destructive marker — a warning sign that a neighborhood was dangerous, infected with crime, on the decline, and a bad place to set up a business. In short, it was a form of grand-scale urban self-inflicted mugging, even if people like Norman Mailer tried to ennoble it. And while you might have been able to pick out a few bits of truly “artful” scrawl, most of the stuff was desecration, pure and simple. And the scourge of graffiti continues: After a recent reconstruction of the Diversey Harbor area, graffiti ruined a beautiful new wall, and the shadows of removed paint still linger.
None of this to to say that arts programming and imaginative ways of harnessing creativity aren’t woefully underfunded and underestimated. They are, and this is a huge badge of shame, and a sign of true political blindness. But it should not be an excuse for criminal activity.
So, on to the show. A group of multi-ethnic Chicago teen boys — Seven (Jerry MacKinnon), the angry African-American brainiac of the group; JC (J. Salome Martinez Jr.), the thoughtful and somewhat nervous Latino who knows about the great Mexican muralists, and Dose (Jessie D. Prez), the clown — are an experienced band of graffiti artists. And when the good-looking Seven meets Selena (Kelly O’Sullivan), a pretty white girl with a taste for adventure (and, better yet, a car), the group acquires an official lookout and getaway aide.
Seven also devises a big “protest” plan: The trio will set their sights on defacing the Art Institute of Chicago’s new modern wing by Renzo Piano (yes, he knows the architect’s name), making a “statement” about the artists allowed “inside” and those who operate “outside.” News flash: There are hundreds of thousands of far finer artists around — of every color and economic situation — whose work will never hang in a museum. But they don’t destroy the museum. (The play’s only brief counter-voice comes by way of Brittani Arlandis Green as a high-minded art scholar.)
After a scene that amounts to a “how to” manual describing the tools of the trade and the means for eluding detection and distracting the police, the group does its dirty work, although not everything goes quite as planned. And like the urban terrorists they are, all have to go “underground” — one suppressing his graffiti instincts and condemned to face an easel, one fearing he might be identified and incarcerated, one actually getting a profitable digital art gig, and the white girl (whose father contacts a lawyer) just leaving town.
No amount of classroom discussion will scrub clean the irresponsible ideas promulgated in this play. The most honest response from the audience (I saw the show with a house packed full of high school students) were the giggles and “oohs” sounded when Seven kisses Selena.
Really, what could Steppenwolf have been thinking? Now, I just hope local politicians will not jump on the bandwagon and, as the ultimate hypocrisy, make this play their “cause.”