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School's Out

September 11, 2008

Playwright Itamar Moses' new drama, Yellowjackets is unusual: It's a piece of issues-based educational theatre with a cast of young actors that breaks out of the high school drama or ethics class mould and finds a home on the professional stage.

The issues that the play deals with -- racial and class tensions within an American high school, specifically the playwright's alma mater, Berkeley High -- would seem like perfect fodder for a high school drama or ethics class. One can imagine students working with their teachers in the classroom to create in-school productions of the play and use it as a launching pad for the discussion of key issues facing the high school community today.

But within the context of a world premiere commission by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the play effectively pulls the issues out of the insular, school environment and attempts to make them resonate with the general public.

The quality of Moses' writing, with its cleverly interweaving themes, plots and characters, the punch and pace of director Tony Taccone's blocking and the liveliness of the performances manage to a degree turn what might otherwise be an educational exercise into something capable of reaching beyond the confines of the high school drama workshop.

Intellectually, I can see why the play could be powerful within the Berkeley community: It's a local story; it deals with important issues facing Berkeley residents; it grapples with the problems at stake from all angles and asks more questions than offers tidy answers; it addresses young people directly -- because the narrative is about their lives -- and indirectly asks them to take ownership of the issues. After all, moving forwards with trying to find practical solutions to racial and social tensions both within American schools and the country at large, is the work of the next generation. Planting the seeds of thought now is key.

And yet, for all that, I personally didn't connect with the production when I saw it last night. From a purely theatrical perspective, the "de-ghettoization" of what is essentially a piece of educational theatre through taking it out of the classroom and putting it onto a major public stage doesn't really work for me. Rather than dealing in metaphors and letting us make subtle connections between what's happening before our eyes and the realities of the world at large, the drama bludgeons us over the head with its political content. Also, if you're not from Berkeley, have never attended an American high school and feel a bit baffled by this country's relentless obsession with race, the theme and story-line seem entirely remote. Most of the time during the show, I felt like I was watching a group of aliens describe life on their distant planet. Whereas I wanted to feel as connected to the characters and their concerns as I do when I see, for example, great productions of plays by the likes of August Wilson or Athol Fugard.

Still, commissioning and staging Moses' drama is a bold move on Berkeley Rep's part. If nothing else, it's an intriguing experiment and a laudable piece of community service.

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