Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play is set in West Side Prep, a fictitious urban high school, and its largely African-American neighborhood. Although Wilson wrote the play after conducting extensive interviews about racial issues with students, parents, and residents in Minneapolis, nothing in the play would make it out of place in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or any other large city. Of the play's three characters, two are students: Chris, a student with a strong religious bent that has earned him the title "the Rev" among his peer; and Oliver, a close friend of Chris, who avoids trouble and strives for success in the arena of romance. The third character is Miss Michelle, principal of West Side Prep, who is by equal measures fiercely dedicated and overwhelmed.
As the day begins, Miss Michelle receives word of some kind of trouble in the neighborhood, a fight, perhaps gang related, and with it the likelihood of trouble being brought into the school. She steels herself to face whatever the day may bring, adjusting her schedule and futilely counting to ten to remain calm and focused. She has had to steer her students through too many brawls, arrests, and deaths. This day is also the annual field trip when she takes students that have high potential to a visit a top tier school, aiming to inspire them to set ambitious goals. Chris and Oliver are both included, and Miss Michelle has in particular kept a close eye on Chris, who recently seemed to disconnect. You might call Chris her pet project. Miss Michelle is determined that the field trip must go on.
Chris's disconnect, we learn, was an emotional and spiritual maelstrom brought on by the death of his best friend James, another good student innocently caught in neighborhood crossfire. Chris sees James's death as part of the continuing stream of innocent young black men such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, killed because they were caught being black in the wrong place or time. He thinks that if the right person were to be gunned down, a young man of notable virtue and accomplishment, it could break the national malaise that allows these deaths to go on. He believes he is called to sacrifice himself and he wants Oliver to aide in deed. Oliver balks, to say the least, at this idea. The play follows the course of events this day and beyond, leading to a conclusion that allows us to hold on to hope, while asserting a context of enormous challenges that overshadow our happy ending.
Chris and Oliver are both smart, articulate, good-hearted young men. As in other recent plays seen in the Twin Cities, such as The Gospel of Lovingkindness and Choir Boy, it is refreshing to see young African-American male characters that contrast with the stereotyped street toughs. For Chris, "The Rev," his religious bent gives him an identity apart from the strife between neighborhood factions, yet allows him to take extreme positions. Oliver is closer to street life and struggles to maintain an image of being cool without getting caught up in the fray. He says, "I want to be a lover, not a fighter," and is talking about his pursuit of women, but in truth, he is a seeker of peace. Miss Michelle has the intelligence, guts, humility, and tenacity necessary to successfully steer an urban high school. She has learned that there is no magic lesson plan to turn the entire system around, but she can focus on smaller victories, such as her hoped-for success with Chris. She is energetic, candid and down to eartha true practitioner, not a theoretician.
These three authentic characters are brought to life with three pitch-perfect performances. Kory LaQuess Pullman as Chris and Ryan Colbert as Oliver play extremely well off one another, making both the differences in their natures and the idea that they could be close friends ring true. Colbert especially captures the edginess Oliver feels as he works to avoid running the wrong side of the rougher students. Jodi Kellogg is astonishing in capturing the inner turmoil of a dedicated educator who knows how great the odds are against her but is determined to keep on fighting for her students. The deep affection, in the most appropriate sense, that she feels for them is palpable. Full disclosure, in my past life I was an urban school principal, and know first-hand what it feels like to walk in those shoes. Kellogg nails it.
Recorded voices provide several other peripheral charactersChris's supportive mother and sternly concerned father, Oliver's mother, other students, and Miss Michelle's daughter, who is the same age as Oliver and Ryan but lives in a far different world. Those, and other sound effects, such as noise that may be thunder or gunshots, a school bus, and the roar of a school cafeteria, flesh out the production. Light design seamlessly draws our focus from one character to another. The costumes are appropriate for each character, with Ryan and Oliver both attired in neat, well-fitting clothes just "ghetto" enough to be acceptable among their peers.
Miss Michelle insists that her school is attended not by students, but by scholars, a term that she hopes elevates their aspirations. Similarly, their school reflects the current trend of inner city schoolsin particular charter school and magnet schoolsto call themselves an Academy, sometimes with the signifying word Preparatory, or Prep, as well. Again, the intent seems to be to indicate that within their walls one will not find students simply being housed for six hours each day, but scholars preparing for a transformative future. The rhetoric is well formed, but the actualization comes at a barely perceptible slow pace, though there are success storieshigh achieving schools, as well as stellar students at even the most dysfunctional schools.
Prep offers insights into the challenges within schools, their neighborhoods, and society writ large, and a glimmer of what success might look like. Oliver and Chris can be standard bearers that make a case for Black Lives Matter. Prep soon winds up its too brief run at Pillsbury House. Both the quality of the work and the turbulence of our times make a strong case for there to be more opportunities for people to see this important play.
Prep continues through October 25, 2015, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Writer: Tracey Scott Wilson; Director: Noël Raymond; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Fight Choreographer: Heidi Batz Rogers; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noel Raymond
Cast: Ryan Colbert (Oliver), Jodi Kellogg (Miss Michelle), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Chris).