World premiere of a play
By Itamar Moses
Directed by Tony Taccone
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
August 29-October 12, 2008
Lance Gardner, Shoresh Alaudini. Photo Kevin Berne
It’s time to hit the books again and Berkeley Rep opened its season by literally taking audiences back to school, specifically Berkeley High, just a few blocks away from the theater, circa 1994. Hot emerging playwright and Berkeley High alum Itamar Moses wrote “Yellowjackets” (the name references both the school’s team mascot and the name of its newspaper) on commission from the theater. Now based in New York, with several off-Broadway and regional successes under his belt, Moses takes a look backward in this semi-autobiographical piece, one that manages to be funny, biting and a little bit heartbreaking all at the same time.
Berkeley High certainly isn’t the only multi-ethnic troubled urban campus in the country but it may be unique because of the community in which it resides. Militantly liberal, politically involved and politically correct in the extreme, Berkeley is both an exemplar to the rest of the nation and the butt of a lot of “California crazy” jokes. It’s all here in this episodic, fast-moving show that doesn’t even seem to have a plot until the end, when you realize it had one all along.
There is a brawl with invaders from another school district in which the vice-principal’s arm is broken and a boycott of the school paper sparked by a Hispanic Studies teacher who wants more exposure for his own special interest group. Some of these kids are over-scheduled overachievers; others think that inhabiting a seat several days a week entitles them to a passing grade. There is bullying, violence and racial tension alongside intellectual curiosity and artistic creativity. There are pending official decisions regarding a security lockdown of the campus and abandoning a controversial “tracking system” that seems to favor the already-privileged. And there are basketball games and romances and all the arrogance and insecurity that teenaged flesh is heir to.
It’s a bit much but Moses manages to cram it all into two-and-a-half hours of vignettes that focus mainly on character, both of students and their teachers. The cast of young unknowns, many of them just out of high school or still in college, doubles in many roles but, so good is the acting and the costuming that you don’t really notice until you study the cast list in the program. For example, tall lovely Jahmela Biggs plays a hard-working student as well as a strict African-American teacher on the lookout for racism in the most unlikely places. Craig Piaget is both a timid, wimpy freshman and the brash, ex-flower child faculty advisor to the newspaper. Brian Rivera is the aforementioned Hispanic Studies teacher as well as a class bully and the local cop.
The main protagonists are Avi (Ben Freeman), the Jewish editor of the paper (and the playwright in thin disguise), and Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), the gang member responsible for breaking the administrator’s arm. They couldn’t be more different and the fact that they find common ground in the final scene may be something of a fairytale ending. But they do share an intensity that fuels their performances. Each is in love: Damian with Biggs’ character, a basketball player with obligations at home that put her into conflict with the system; and Avi with Alexa, his Mexican-American photo editor (Amaya Alonso Hallifax). Gwen, the paper’s studious, self-righteous editorial chief (Adrienne Papp) is in love with Avi, which she mostly manifests by arguing with him. Excellent support is given by Lance Gardner, Alex Curtis, Kevin Hsieh and Erika Salazar.
Director Tony Taccone must be young at heart because he has allowed these kids their own voices instead of imposing a more mature outlook on the script. Annie Smart’s wall-mural backdrop, looming behind the fence that is supposed to keep students in and strangers out (and manages to do neither) is perfection, as is Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting design. Whether or not “Yellowjackets” will have a life beyond Berkeley is a bit of a question. But right now it’s one for the home team.