Opened Sept. 3, 2008 — now extended through Oct. 19
Jahmela Biggs (left) is Ms. Robbins a teacher who has problems with the school newspaper and Ben Freeman is Avi, the new editor of the school newspaper in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s season-opening world premiere, Yellowjackets. Photo by kevinberne.com.
Teens bear weight of a messy world in Moses’ `Yellowjackets’
If Disney’s High School Musical had been set at Berkeley High School, it would have to lose the vapid songs, the dewy-cheeked innocence and the vacuous romance. It would have to ramp up the intellect, pour on the conflict and lose all sense of teenage fun.
In other words, it would have to be Yellowjackets, the world-premiere play that opens Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new season.
Written by Itamar Moses, himself a Berkeley High grad (Class of ’95), this teenage drama is exactly what you expect about the high school experience in Berkeley circa 1994: it’s smart, political, contentious, relentless, confusing and so full of weighty issues you may forget you’re actually dealing with teenagers here.
Directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, Yellowjackets (named for the Berkeley High mascot) has moments of volcanic passion, especially when dealing with issues of race, and it emphasizes what a god-awful mess we’ve made with that “all men are created equal” thing.
But this is 2 ½ hours of intensity with very little relief – oh, there’s some romance and a couple laughs, but for the most part, the lightning-paced dialogue and slam-bang scene changes keep the play hurtling forward at breakneck speed. Imagine high school as re-imagined by Aaron Sorkin: It’s “Welcome Back Kotter” meets “The West Wing.”
There’s a lot of play here – perhaps too much – and there’s no real protagonist. Avi (Ben Freeman, above center with Alex Curtis and Erika Salazar), the new editor of the high school newspaper, The Jacket, gets a lot of stage time, and for good reason. He’s brainy and gung-ho, a geek coming into his own. And he’s a good candidate for protagonist except that there’s someone more interesting onstage and that’s Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), a bright kid who finds himself in too much trouble.
Threatened with expulsion after being involved in an on-campus gang fight, Damian struggles with hanging on to his street cred or doing the right thing for his brother, Rashid (Lance Gardner), a security guard at the school, and his girlfriend, basketball player Tamika (Jahmela Biggs).
Everybody’s got problems at school (effectively evoked by the chain link, graffiti and sharp details of Annie Smart’s set). The student newspaper is being boycotted by various faculty members (all acting like children themselves and played by the young actors playing the teenagers) because of perceived insensitivity to racial issues.
Because of the gang fight, the fence around the school is locked during the day, so off-campus privileges have been revoked. And the notion of tracking students – putting all the smart kids on one track and all the more challenged students on another – has turned into another form of segregation and is causing unrest. A beloved counselor has retired early for “health” reasons; and bullies are being bullies. Kids from Richmond are threatening kids at Berkeley, and within the school there’s antagonism between second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans.
Gee, remember when high school used to be sort of fun – even when it seemed the pressures of hormones, peers and parents would kill you?
Maybe high school in Berkeley in 1994 was all racial, violent, academic and intellectual hell (there’s no question it was awash in flannel and plaid, according to Meg Neville’s spot-on period costumes). It sure seems like these kids could benefit from a screening of the politically incorrect Sixteen Candles.
The cast of young, mostly local actors is terrific when they’re playing young. They’re not as effective in the adult roles. In theory, the idea of kids playing teachers is a good one, but in practice, some of the actors are out of their depth.
Act 1 sparks in fits and starts – it begins with a physical brawl and feels like an intellectual brawl from then on, but things really begin to gel in Act 2, especially in a scene between Avi (Freeman is so believable you half expect him to take the SATs at the end of the play) and his girlfriend, Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax). He rails about how hard it is to be a white Jewish guy in America – one of the people who “gets it” — and she doesn’t show a whole lot of pity for his being a “white kid, in a brown school, in a white country, in a white-white First World. Go fifteen miles north, south, or east of here and check.”
It’s a fiery scene, when race and youth and intelligence clash and discover just how impossible it is to please anyone, let alone everyone. There are no good guys or bad guys, no such thing as “the same.” And, unfortunately, so little hope of equality.
As provocative and involving as the play can be, Moses and Taccone haven’t found the right ending yet. The final scene concludes with a question – the weakest line of dialogue in the play because the lingering questions are so big and so obvious.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Yellowjackets continues an extended run through Oct. 19 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.