Friday, September 12, 2008

"Yellowjackets" isn't black and white

Oh jeez, I promised you more about Yellowjackets, didn't I, and now over a week has gone by? All right, better late than never. After all, the show is at Berkeley Rep for another full month--till October 12.

I went to see Yellowjackets with Anushka, a friend of mine from high school, who turned out to be the ideal theatergoing companion. Because Yellowjackets takes place at a high school, it made us reminisce about our own teenage years and how the characters reminded us of people we used to know. Plus, back in the day, Anushka directed me in a production of Spinning Into Butter, which, like Yellowjackets, is a play about an ostensibly liberal and p.c. school confronting tough issues of race and class.

Spinning Into Butter is simple and straightforward, however, compared with the interwoven voices and subplots of Yellowjackets. The play feels like it could explode at any moment--because Berkeley High School in 1994, the play's setting, is also on the verge of explosion. It takes place in the '90s because that's when Itamar Moses, the playwright, was himself a student at Berkeley High, but the themes still feel very potent and contemporary. These kids could be today's kids, except that they are wearing awful flannel shirts and pale jeans. Though who has time to think about fashion when you're going to high school in the middle of one of the most liberal cities in the country, and yet you feel like you're going to get beaten up any day? Or when you resent the school for its "tracking" system, in which students are separated according to ability? Or when you've got to head up the student newspaper or prepare a skit for Cinco de Mayo or be sure you get into the best college?

I should mention that Itamar was one of the first playwrights I ever met, three summers ago when he was workshopping Celebrity Row at PCS. He's a cool guy, he's been rather dazzlingly successful at a young age, and his writing style--big, smart, energetic plays that grapple with tough questions without losing their sense of humor--is one that appeals to me. So I was looking forward to Yellowjackets, and the script definitely feels "Itamar-esque." Refreshingly, it's a play about teenagers that isn't about "teen angst"--or, if it does feature some troubled kids, also delves into the larger social forces that cause their troubles. The play propels itself via smart and fast-paced dialogue (Anushka and I wondered if we were ever so articulate as teenagers) though there is one dazzling moment of physical action in Act Two that gets repeated to end the show.

Yellowjackets examines the issues from all sides and refuses to name a villain--indeed, if it chose a villain, mightn't that be interpreted as racist in some way? We learn that many of the conflicts in the play arose because of poor communication and the like, so no one is really to blame, and yet everyone (i.e. "the system") is to blame. But the eventual "the kids are alright, if only they reached out and listened to one another" message felt a little naive, like the play was pulling its punches and underestimating how powerful racial hatred can be.

The cast of Yellowjackets is mostly young, because the script requires every actor to play a high-school student as well as an older authority figure or two. Because I've seen so much student theater, I had no trouble accepting young actors as older characters, but I wonder if that might be more jarring for other audience members. Some of the actors play their older characters as caricatures with funny accents or physicalities, but my favorite performers were equally believable as teenagers and as adults. For instance, Jahmela Biggs is convincing as both high-school basketball star Tamika and as sensitive-to-racism teacher Ms. Robbins. Brian Rivera is the only cast member who doesn't convince as a high school student (he just looks too old) but I liked him in the role of Mr. Behzad, a teacher filled with Chicano pride.

The multilayered plot of Yellowjackets kept me absorbed throughout, except during Act Two, when someone in the audience had a loud coughing fit and I briefly took my eyes from the stage. As I looked around the theater, I was startled, freaked out even, to realize that virtually every face in the audience was white. I suppose I should be used to this by now--I go to enough mainstream theater to know I rarely see ethnic minorities there--but man, it's sobering. And it jibes with the point of Yellowjackets: that even in a place as self-congratulatorily liberal as Berkeley, there are still hidden systems that keep different ethnic groups separate.

Links: The LA Times and the SF Chronicle have both published profiles of Itamar in the last week.... Berkeley Rep has started a blog on their website to take you behind the scenes of Yellowjackets.

All images copyright Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Top, Jahmela Biggs and Ben Freeman; bottom, Craig Piaget and Brian Rivera.

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